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Kingdom of Bicycles


When it comes to Beijing's nine million bicycles and 1.4 million motorized vehicles, it's largely a classic case of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object. No rush-hour cyclist or driver seems prepared to give an inch where getting to work or anywhere else on time is concerned, and basic road courtesy appears virtually non-existent-even among city-center cyclists who cram their special lanes alongside highways.

The only conclusion to be drawn from the cacophony of hot-footed revving-ups and motor horns, and cyclists poised like coiled springs on thei r pedals for a quick getaway, is that everyone is bent on being the fastest mover between each set of traffic lights. No one seems to have cottoned on that such foolhardy acceleration is utterly futile. Irritation by both sides, a global never mind Beijing manifestation of rush-hour-clogged city arteries, is wholly evident in the Chinese capital through ongoing exchanges of dark looks, vigorous V-signs (mainly by foreigners), and waved fists, especially when cyclists leave their exclusive lanes and vie with motorists for whatever bit of main roadway invites. Never mind the rules or simple common sense. Whatever the traffic density, all too many death-wish cyclists still deem the shortest route between A and B to be a straight line, and the devil take the hindmost. That their passage might be directly across a busy main road ... well, you get the picture.

Despite antagonisms of the moment caused by countless near-misses and the inevitable side-swipes or messy head-on collisions between bikes and vehicles, there are also smatterings of good humor in the air. An example is when a traffic cop briefly halts everything, and with an all-embracing circular wave of an accusatory finger censures everyone in his eye-line who's in charge of wheels. Far from feeling sheepish at the admonition, transgressors tend to respond with chuckles and smiles. Whatever else they may lack, Beijingers generally are blessed with good humor and the spirit of goodwill, as many a foreigner would confirm. And, as yet, at least there is no "road rage" in Beijing.

While the city's 400,000 privately owned cars, 25,000 or so taxis, eq ually ubiquitous white vans and other vehicles are vastly outnumbered by bikes and trikes, they nonetheless rule the roost when it comes to precedence at road junctions and roundabouts. But not by any law. Observe any such spot, and it is obvious that cyclists seem almost brainwashed into sudden braking in face of anything on four wheels, even if they clearly have right of way. It's all an odd contradiction.

In Beijing, bikes rule by sheer weight of numbers, and are likely to continue doing so for a good while yet. Theirs is the kingdom, if not the power in the usual sense. But they still have the glory as a highly colorful, oft-eccentric spectacle not seen in any other capital city. Bike culture makes motorized vehicles seem almost puny.

Bikes Remain Paramount
Time was when the Netherlands was as world famous for its millions of bikes as for the tulips, windmills and dykes that dotted the unusually flat country. Bu t while it was ideal for cycling, cars gradually became predominant to the point where virtually every family put its bikes into mothballs and joined in the dubious fun of polluting a heretofore superb atmosphere with car-exhaust fumes. Now the pendulum is swinging back with increasing rapidity as Dutch people more and more yearn for the return of their former enviable environment. Experts predict that there will be more bikes than cars on the roads by the end of this decade. In the decades ahead, Beijing, also largely flat, seems likely to experience a repeat of the Netherlands phenomenon. China Henan East International, one of China's largest exporters of bicycles, points out that while more and more Beijingers want to own a car, their prices for now are still largely beyond the reach of the average worker. Even so, more and more vehicles are daily appearing on the capital's roads, hence the increasing traffic jams despite the continuing provision of more and improved roads and highways. But more bicycles are also being bought, threatening even more traffic chaos, says the company. The good news is that cycling is far healthier than sitting behind the wheel of a car.

Easy Riders
Why are there so many bicycles in Beijing? Research by bike manufacturer and exporter China Henan East International Company says there are numerous reasons. A document issued by the firm says: "Beijing has the advantage of being very flat, so it is easier for people to use a bicycle to get to work, for shopping, and visiting relatives. Many big factories and research institutes are on the outskirts of the city, and workers find it easier to reach them by bicycle. The bad news is that some 3,000 bikes are stolen each month in Beijing.

"The layout of the inner city within the Second Ring Road is like a chessboard. Its alleys and narrow streets are more convenient for bikes than for buses and trolley buses.? The document notes that, at the birth of the PRC in 1949, Beijing's public transport comprised just five buses, 49 tramcars and 30,000 rickshaws. "Since then, the city government has done a tremendous amount of work to improve traffic facilities. Today there are over eight million bicycles, 3,000 public buses, more than 500 trolley buses and two subway lines [a third is now being built, to be followed by a special subway to the site of the 2008 Olympic Games]."

Cyclists Shalt Not ...
China's laws for cyclists are very much in line with those overseas, but are not, it sometimes seems, always strictly applied. In Britain, for example, anyone caught cycling after dark without front and rear lights will usually be fined, or at best cautioned by the police. There appears to be no mention of bicycle lights in Chinese law. Many European countries also require bicycles to have a bell, but again this is not a requirement in China, though probably most bikes have one.

In Beijing, it is common to see two people sharing a bicycle. This is against the law, but seems to be accepted by the police. Riding a bike after drinking alcohol is also an offence, as is two cyclists riding shoulder-to-shoulder on any road used by motor vehicles. While such things happen, the sheer volume of cyclists results in a good deal of "blind eyeing" by officialdom. Cyclists are not allowed to raise an umbrella while moving, or ride without holding the handlebars. Bikes and tricycles are prohibited from carrying a load whose height is above their shoulder level ? a law largely ignored by hawkers and transporters who pile huge amounts of goods on their machine. Learner cyclists must stay away from main roads.



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