We just got back from a week in Beijing, China and, full disclosure, even though I am writing about biking there, I did not actually ride a bike. More about that later.
In the 1970’s China was known as the Kingdom of the Bicycle and the Flying Pigeon brand bicycle was the most popular product in China. Bike lanes in Beijing were 3 car lanes wide and there were reported to be 72 bikes for every 100 people.
Then Chinese officials decided they wanted to modernize the country to a transportation system more like the West, so they encouraged people to put away their bikes and purchase autos. They quickly determined this was not a sustainable policy when the roads became congested to the point of gridlock and the gas burning engines contributed to the poor air quality. Fast forward to 2018 when bicycling ownership has not bounced back but biking is back with a twist—China now leads the world in bike sharing programs. I would estimate that 75% of the bikes on the road today are from one of China’s bike share programs.
I had the opportunity to visit Beijing at the end of August because my husband had a business trip and since I had never been to China before, I decided tag along. There was no formal tour, I figured we would just show up and find our way to the big three tourist attractions: the Great Wall of China, Tiananmen Square, and the Forbidden City plus a side trip to see the Terra Cotta Warriors in Xi’an. My preparation was simplify to check out a travel book from the library dated 2015. But as of 2015 there was no mention of dockless bikeshare and nothing about the pervasive use of cell phones for mobile payments. There is 2000 years of history in China, but in less than 3 years there has been a transformation of Chinese society due to the Internet!
Although I was keen to hop on one of the dockless bike shares, the pervasive mobile payment culture caught us unprepared. Our cell phones did not work and the process of buying a SIM card or burner phone and figuring out how to link a payment source to an app was daunting. A Bing search (Google is banned in China) recommended not bothering if your visit was less than a week. They use mobile payments for everything, from steamed buns from a street vendor to hailing a taxi with an uber-like app. It has been said that Americans use non-cash payments 20-30 times per month; the Chinese 50 times. Since we were only there for less than a week, I decided to forgo the actual bike ride and instead spend the time observing the bike culture.
There are 2.3 million dockless sharing bikes in Beijing. Just like in American cites with dockless bikes, shared bikes litter the alleyways, sidewalks, block the front of businesses and are abandoned on highways, making you wonder why someone would bike there and just get off and walk away They have robust bike infrastructure with wide protected bike lanes and bike signal lights on just about every major street. These lanes are protected from autos, most of the time, but no effort is made to prohibit motor scooters. The vast majority of the bikes are from one of the many dockless bike share services and there are very few privately owned bicycles. No one wears a helmet. In the rain, many cycle holding an umbrella and some with a cigarette hanging out of their mouths. Bike riding is done by all ages and income levels, but most popular with the young. When someone was riding a private bicycle, if it was not a vintage bike, it was a Giant brand which is the world’s largest bike manufacturer with factories in China.
Beijing is a world away from Chicago, the language, customs, food, and even the toilets are different, but one thing we have in common—our love of bicycles for transportation and recreation.