While many people remember her as a slightly irritating pop singer, in fact Katie Melua’s songwriting was a quest for truth. Her song citing the number of bicycles in Beijing (9 million) encouraged the city’s transport commission to do more to encourage this pollution-free form of transport, to fight the smog and pollution synonymous with industralisation and the rise of the private motor car.
“We owe it all to Katie”, said Li Xiaopeng, China’s minister for transport. “For non-Chinese people, 9 million obviously sounds like a lot. But with a forward-looking city like Beijing, with its entrepreneurial spirit of technological renewal, we knew we needed to aim higher.”
Fast forward to 2018, and the city is now stuffed with dockless bike sharing schemes. Things have calmed down a bit since the viral images of abandoned bikes piled high on the pavements, but occasionally you still see, erm, abandoned bikes piled high on the pavements. Leaving the ethics, funding and sustainability of the sharing economy to one side – if you’re interested, Time have written a decent guide to how it’s all pannier-ing out – I thought I’d write up my first impressions of getting around the city by bike.
There are lots of bikes. That’s a fact, that’s a thing
In my very unscientific estimation, featuring considerably less rigour than my GSCE geography project, the most popular two brands are Ofo and Mobike. I saw more Ofo bikes lining the streets, but more people actually riding the Mobikes.
Sometimes, as above, the bikes are set up all neatly, though if you look closely there is one Mobike lying on its side, like a newly born fawn that tried to stand up too soon.
Sometimes it’s not quite so neat.
These schemes have launched in some British cities, but thus far lack the critical mass required to make using them the obvious and easy choice. If we get piles like this outside every tube station, maybe I’d consider it. It would have the added advantage of really annoying taxi drivers.
What’s it like cycling in Beijing?
Beijing has a lot of enormously wide, tank-ready roads, and a surprisingly long distance between subway stations – Covent Garden to Leicester Square this is not. So it’s understandable that many people cycle instead, and there are wide cycle lanes on most roads.
As well as the ubiquitous hire bikes, there are an assortment of other vehicles using the lane. These include:
1) Non-hire bikes
2) Electric bikes
3) Electric scooters
4) Electric mopeds
5) Petrol mopeds
6) Mysterious carts
7) Sort-of cargo bikes filled with cardboard boxes and other recyclable material
8) Tiny electric cars and vans
9) The occasional child weeing in the street
It’s a bit of a free-for-all, and you quickly adjust to people flying towards you at all directions. Even the mopeds and scooters tend to keep to a fairly sedate pace, so it never feels particularly dangerous.
After adjusting to the city’s unofficial rules and unspoken cycling etiquette, I found cycling across the city an absolute joy, despite the smog, traffic, and occasionally bleak architecture.
At particularly busy intersections during rush hour, traffic wardens pull across barriers to prevent people from walking or cycling out of turn. These, though, are circumnavigated with a modicum of cunning:
And on smaller streets you get the usual gauntlet of cars parked selfishly in the cycle lane, forcing parents with small kids to battle it out with oncoming traffic: