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The wisdom of Beijing bike riding?

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Is hiring a bike a good way to see Beijing? I'm reading conflicting reports. On the positive side it's flat and it sounds like there are dedicated bike lanes; on the negative, there's the air pollution and apparently the intersections can be pretty dangerous.

Any thoughts?

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    Casual visitors do do it, but it's a short trip from casual to casualty (setting aside the atmospheric pollution which you do not want to be sucking deep into your lungs any more than you can help).

    There are indeed bike lanes along most major streets, although these are starting to disappear. However, cars drive along them all the time. At junctions cars simply turn across your path entirely indifferent to your existence. The only consistent rule of the road in Beijing is, "I'm bigger than you. Out of my way."

    If you're expecting courtesy or common sense, then you're a liability to your own well-being.

    Peter N-H

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    No, absolutely not a good idea.

    As Peter has said, there are designated pedestrian, car, bike, and sometimes motorcycle lanes - BUT nobody observes these lane rules and you may find cars riding up on the sidewalks sometimes just to keep going ahead.

    There's lots of good public transportation - besides where are you going to park your bike? And are you going to carry around a heavy lock and chain to secure it each time you stop?

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    Although, oddly enough, bike locks do not weigh more in China than they do anywhere else (and often come built-in on Chinese bikes as it happens), you park your bike in one of the innumerable street-side bike parks, each with an attendant, for the sum of ¥0.20.

    There was much talk about encouraging citizens back onto bikes in the run-up to the Olympics (but then they were also going to teach all the cabbies English and improve human rights, too), with a scheme to have bikes available for ¥20 a day (¥400 deposit) that could be collected from any one of 230 stations and returned to any other. The website for this has now gone off-line, however, and last year the bikes were showing up as available for rent at some of the business hotels around the city, suggesting the company had been selling them off.

    See (including pictures of the built-in locks):

    http://www.bikeoff.org/design_resource/DR_schemes_public_hire_examples_Beijing.shtml

    Peter N-H

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    The locals have replaced their bicycles with motorcycles or cars.

    I just talked to a 22-year old Shanghaiese who's visiting UCLA right now. She doesn't know how to ride a bike.

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    Really?

    In 2007 just 19% of Shanghai consumers owned cars according to Nielsen. The figure was 29% in Beijing, where there were over ten million registered bicycles, however.

    Setting aside the things people will say for face, someone able to study at UCLA is hardly representative of the Shanghai population as a whole.

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    She's actually a student at Fudan. Only here for a few weeks. But apparently, from a pretty privileged family. :D

    ---

    Anyways, there are definitely a lot more cars and motorcycles, and fewer bicycles these days in China. Longer commute, worse air quality, and so on.

    But public transportation has also improved a lot in most cities. Not just subways in the largest cities, but buses are much nicer and more frequent.

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    Peter: interesting article. Thanks for posting it.

    I was thinking of the high rate of bicycle thefts when writing the last paragraph.

    Pumblechook2 - have you ever been to Rome? Would you ride a bike to sightsee around Rome? Beijing traffic is about 10 times worse.

    I agree with rkkwan. There's lots of good and safe public transportation. Even taxis are relatively inexpensive.

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    Ok, so we won't be riding bikes :-)

    Easytraveler: I have been to Rome and your post made me realise that I think of bike riding as more of an Asian thing to do (without wanting to sound racist). It would never have crossed my mind to hire bikes in Rome or any other European cities but I have ridden bikes in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi (briefly - now there's a city with some serious traffic!)

    Anyway, in Beijing we'll stick to trains and taxis. Travelling's not supposed to be hard work, is it?

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    Personally I still would not. Its not a genteel bike ride and it looks like every man for themselves especially in rush hour. Its not worth falling off and breaking an arm in my opinion. Also huffing and puffing more in pollution is not my idea of enjoyable :-)

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    I'm dumbfounded you would be put off from biking in Beijing simply because a bunch of strangers on an online forum have warned you it's "dangerous" and so full of pollution (not like it's not polluted at home or you wouldn't be facing the same pollution in a taxi or on foot). It also appears none of the commenters appear to live in China or bike.

    I lived in Beijing for over 2 years and biked everywhere and never once had an accident. Would you rather be trapped in a pollution machine in traffic all day? It seems like a horrible way to see the city. It's awfully boring to explore the hutongs by foot and unfeasible to go by car since they're so narrow.

    I urge you to reconsider and am so put off by how easily you've been dissuaded from biking that I signed up on Fodor's to post (then again, this site attracts a different demographic from Lonely Planet?). I'm especially alarmed that Peter, a guidebook writer, would advise against biking!

    Also, if the number of people biking are allegedly going down, wouldn't that mean less bike traffic at rush hour? People are ditching their cars and going back to the bikes because the traffic is so awful and they're sick of the constant trips to the garage. The commutes have become so bad, many people bike upwards of half an hour to the subway just to save time!

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    I agree with sinogirl. The pace of cycling that we observed in Beijing was fairly slow. I doubt the pollution effect is greater cycling than walking briskly. But I would get off the bike at major intersections before someone knocked me off.

    What I would not do is what we saw many people doing in Kyoto. People cycling in the rain in crowded areas holding umbrellas over their head. Without a helmet. I have cycled for 45 years in Canada and don't think I have seen that more than five times.

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    > I'm dumbfounded you would be put off from biking in Beijing simply because a bunch of strangers on an online forum have warned you it's "dangerous"

    Generally speaking, if you choose to put something in quotation marks, it's a good idea actually to be quoting someone. The only person to use the word 'dangerous' so far was the OP, not the 'bunch of strangers' who replied with the best intention of providing the views for which they had been asked.

    It's of course in the nature of sites like this that if you post queries a 'bunch of strangers' will answer. You're one of them in fact, aren't you? So following this line of argument your views are not to be taken as persuasive either, are they?

    > and so full of pollution (not like it's not polluted at home

    So all places are equally polluted? This seems to run counter to both experience and common sense, not to mention scientific measurement which puts Beijing amongst the most polluted cities in the world on various different scales. My home has very little pollution for a city. Melbourne (the OP's home base, if you look) has a little more, but dramatically less than Beijing.

    > or you wouldn't be facing the same pollution in a taxi or on foot).

    Perhaps you're unaware of this, but your lungs behave differently when you're sitting down doing nothing from when you're cycling along. Try it and see. The Beijing government itself suggests quite frequently that pollution levels are so high that strenuous activity should be avoided. I'd be the last person to suggest government announcements in China are in general to be taken seriously, but in this case I'm quite sure they are fiddling the figures and not issuing that warning nearly as frequently as they should be, and I think I'd be willing to take their opinion over that of a single 'stranger' who doesn't appear to be addressing the arguments very sensibly.

    > It also appears none of the commenters appear to live in China or bike.

    It certainly appears that none of them are psychic, so at least you have that in common.

    I can't speak for the others, but I've had several years of residence in Beijing and have been cycling there on and off since 1986, not that I want to get into the childish and absurd expat 'I've been here longer than you have. Na na-na na-na na!' game.

    But I wonder just how much exposure to Beijing traffic would qualify anyone to give an opinion on whether someone new to the city should cycle there? I would have thought an hour or so would be enough.

    I cycle all the time, and haven't even owned a car for 19 years. But how on earth is that remotely relevant to the discussion?

    > I lived in Beijing for over 2 years and biked everywhere and never once had an accident.

    Is this the same as claiming that accidents are only as commonplace in Beijing as they are everywhere else? Statistics say differently, and I've certainly seen many pile ups involving cyclists.

    Is this a claim that car behaviour is as courteous or law-abiding as it would be in Melbourne (for example)? Absurd.

    Does it constitute in any way an argument that someone *newly arrived* in Beijing should jump straight on a bike? It doesn't seem so.

    As was admitted in the first words of the very first response, there are certainly people who do, and hardened road warriors for whom any road is fine. But clearly some people don't think that's a good idea.

    > Would you rather be trapped in a pollution machine in traffic all day?

    Would you like to present everyone with a false dichotomy?

    I'd be very happy to see all cars banned from Beijing, although in fact the biggest sources of pollution are in fact illegal factories in Hebei, and construction.

    Meanwhile there are buses and the subway to consider, not to mention, best of all, walking. Unfortunately visitors often need to get around many locations in a small time.

    > It seems like a horrible way to see the city.

    Agreed, and often not very practical. But sometimes necessary for the short-term visitor for whom the destinations are the point and not the method used to reach them, which needs to be quick and convenient whenever possible (and occasionally taxis are both quick and convenient).

    > It's awfully boring to explore the hutongs by foot

    Tendentious, to say the least, and, course, just the opinion of a 'stranger'.

    Walking is the best way to see the hutong (singular and plural form), to catch sight of odd architectural detail, to interact with local people, to meander in and out of shops and small restaurants and bakeries, to browse through hutong markets, and to get a bit of exercise.

    > and unfeasible to go by car since they're so narrow.

    Try telling that to a taxi driver. Are you sure you lived in Beijing for two years?

    > I urge you to reconsider and am so put off by how easily you've been dissuaded from biking that I signed up on Fodor's to post (then again, this site attracts a different demographic from Lonely Planet?).

    That would be the Lonely Planet site where a 'bunch of strangers' answer queries, would it? I post on both, myself, when I have a mind. Does the 'demographic' of the people posting here actually affect the pollution levels or the behaviour of drivers in some way?

    It is probably fair to say that the advice given to or by 20-somethings is likely to be different than that given to or by 60-somethings. Is that the point here? Does that constitute an admission that there might be a demographic for which avoiding cycling would be a good plan?

    > I'm especially alarmed that Peter, a guidebook writer, would advise against biking!

    Setting aside that my occupation has very little to do with it (and the situation would be the same if I were a plumber or taxidermist), it really helps to read the comments made and to think a little before actually laying in to people. If that's done it will see that it is pointed out that many casual visitors do indeed cycle in Beijing, but some of the drawbacks are sketched out (very roughly, in a conversational kind of way). Indeed, bike renting options, and the ease and security of parking a bike, are then mentioned in a later post.

    Nor has any stance against biking in general been taken. Nor is there any general pro-car or anti-bike position. So these are all straw men. As I mentioned, I'm sufficiently anti-car to have lived without one for nearly 20 years, but again, this has nothing to do with the arguments set out, does it?

    > Also, if the number of people biking are allegedly going down, wouldn't that mean less bike traffic at rush hour?

    Yes, but no one (have you actually read the postings?) has said that other cyclists are the problem (athough undoubtedly some of them are), but quite specifically that cars are, and that the numbers of cars are on the increase.

    > People are ditching their cars and going back to the bikes because the traffic is so awful and they're sick of the constant trips to the garage. The commutes have become so bad, many people bike upwards of half an hour to the subway just to save time!

    Good for them if true, but unfortunately it doesn't seem to be true at all, and while there's been something of a return to public transport since last year's price reductions, the general movement (although it has slowed since the SARS rush) is toward four wheels and away from two. Glad to see the admission that the subway is an option, however.

    So let's be entirely clear on the advice:

    If you are a keen cyclist and are determined to do so then you can certainly cycle in Beijing (as many millions of Beijingers do), although various drawbacks (lunatic drivers, pollution) have been mentioned above, and as with many another city around the world at the very least you may well not find cycling as pleasurable as you would in other environments, and considerably more hazardous.

    Major sights in Beijing are sufficiently spread out that cycling around all of them if you only have limited time in Beijing is impractical. So for biking enthusiasts a day's riding around say, the Hou Hai, Drum/Bell Tower, Huguo Si environs largely away from major boulevards might be best, if there's time available.

    Your best policy is to choose a hotel near a subway station, and to ride the subway to a cluster of sights then walk between them. Surface traffic is very slow between around 8am and 10am, and again from around 3.30pm to 7pm, so taxis and buses are best avoided in that period.

    Peter

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