Monday, June 19, 2006

Riding the Bike

I remember as a college student, getting in a small bicycle crash, and complaining to a classmate about how crazy bicycling could be. She just didn't see it. "I was raised in China..." she explained. Say no more.

Bicycling in Shanghai is out of control. It depends where you are - on highways, obviously, and on the main roads in the center of town, bicycles aren't permitted. Elsewhere, there can be swarms of bicycles:

Still, I imagine the crowds are much worse in other cities of China, many of which are missing either a subway system, or an extensive series of busses.

I don't see the stereotypical underpowered scooter loaded down with a family, their pet dog, and a large refrigerator or two. To be fair, I do see these push-cart bikes, often loaded down with so much they can barely be moved, perhaps requiring a friend on a scooter to help pull them.

Bikes are common throughout Shanghai, perhaps especially on the less developed parts of town beyond the reach of public transport. I'm not sure on an exact breakdown, but I'd guess it's about half bicycles, and the rest is a combination of electric mopeds, electric scooters, and gasoline powered scooters:

Shanghai used to have gasoline mopeds, but they were phased out, beoming illegal on Shanghai streets as of half a year ago. Also illegal on Shanghai streets are extremely large-engined motorcycles such as Harley Davidsons, for reasons of noise and pollution. I told some people about my father's Harley Davidson, they found the top speed and so forth kind of ludicrous. I understand Harley Davidson does operate some dealerships in China, but you have to park them outside of most large cities. Anyway, you do see a few smaller-engined motorcycles in Shanghai. Mostly they're operated by the police, or as independent taxis, generally lined up near certain subway stations.

I'll admit I totally want an electic scooter or moped. Why? First of all, because they only cost $200 or so - although a bike goes for maybe $30, a gas scooter for maybe $300. Secondly because they are stealth. Even a bicycle makes small noises, you can notice them when they come up on you. Electric bikes are totally quiet and way sneaky. They surprise me every time, at least they do in the rare case when the driver isn't leaning on his horn. They're even sold at department stores in Shanghai:

So what stops me? For one thing, maybe the traffic in Shanghai is still too intimidating. Also, even though in most ways Shanghai is a very very safe city, bike theft is very common, I know one guy who had three bikes stolen in one year! To prevent theft, some of the bikes have some serious locks on them:

During the winter, a lot of powered bicycles will have mittens attached to the bike handles, to keep your hands protected from the cold wind. They also lock your hands in places and I'm sure they result in some really ugly accidents. Even though it's June, this bike still hasn't had its mittens taken off:

A lot of the bikes are old and not in the best of condition, and batteries need charging, so there's an equally huge amount of small bike shops. My apartment complex has a guy who sits by the side wall and fixes bike problems, he also repairs shoes. Here's another roadside shack, it has parts and is probably about as large and thorough as these places get:

I should mention, these bikes are kings of the road. Cars at least feel an obligation to slow down for large masses of pedestrians. But bikes will never stop for anything - when the roads are crowded with them, it can be tough to cross the street!

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