On Saturday the 10th of June, I went for a ride on my bike here in Beijing. My target was to reach the mountains to the north. The air was relatively clean - I could see the destination I was heading for (unlike if I was to do it today.) On the way out it was a rather extraordinary sight along the roads I took - there were green clothed police/army people along the road and at every intersection. At some intersections I passed, traffic was being held up and not going anywhere. It wasn't until maybe half an hour of travelling that I finally saw the reason why - a black car motorcade, complete with police escort, went zooming by.
The trip took me out of the city of Beijing and into some of the more rural areas around it. I passed through a town called "Shahe" and got close to the Ming Tombs before weather indicated it was time to turn around.
In Beijing, when you buy a bike, you get just the bike - seat, wheels, tubes, chains, frame, etc. No accessory kit to repair tyres, etc. It simply isn't necessary as there are plenty of bicycle repair shops around. How much does it cost to get a puncture repaired? 1 RMB per hole. Oh, you may also get a basket on the front or pack rack on the back (for your girlfriend to sit on.)
So what did I carry with me on my trip out? Camera, top, money, keys. No water or food. Why not? China is relatively densely populated and the bike is still the preferred mode of transport for a lot of people. To support this, where we might have gas stations for people to fill up their cars, the Chinese have road-side stalls for you to get a soft drink or bottle of water from. On a hot day there is an added advantage: their drinks are kept in coolers and can be ice cold. This is a bonus in two ways: don't have to lug around drink and you get a cold drink, not a hot/warm drink. Food? Stop at a gas station or find a store close to the road and buy something. My preference is chocolate with nuts.
There is a lot of misunderstanding and perhaps anger towards the cause of road traffic problems in China, causing articles such as this one about 'China urged to back-pedal on bikes' to be written. What I find most bewildering is that anyone who plans against or tries to ban bikes doesn't understand what the problem is because it isn't just bikes - it is also pedestrians.
How can this be? In Beijing, there are pedestrains in numbers at the corners of intersections for busy roads between the hours of 9am and 9pm in numbers that most westerners will never see. This alone isn't the problem. It is the attitude of both bike riders and pedestrians that is the cause of the problem (and cars too, to a lesser extent.) When it comes to crossing a road, everyone wants to get to the other side as quickly as they can - regardless of what the traffic lights say. For cars, this is a bit hard, so for the most part they respect the lights. But for cyclists and pedestrians, they have long worked out they are small enough and can move quickly enough, to execute a successful (partial) crossing before the lights change. I see this every day and it causes no end of headaches for drivers in the city.
One solution being adopted in Beijing is to employ minor traffic police that stand at each corner of an intersection. Sometimes there are 2 per corner - one for each direction of pedestrian traffic at each corner. They're equipped with whistles and red flags. Their job - to keep the cyclists and pedestrians in order and not to (attempt to) cross the road until the light is green for them to do so.
I'm almost convinced that this is a cultural problem, although what the root cause is defeats me. I see it in other parts of daily life in China too - people get in the lift and the first thing they do is push the "close door" button. Nobody wants to wait for others to get in (if they can help it.) I've seen this in the building I work in and in the buildings I've lived in. I see the same attitude with their subway/metro/trains - you have to push your way off a train, those getting on never stand back to let people off. Are all three issues different symptoms of the same problem? Or are they all different problems? Whatever the case, some of this (the train issue mostly) has forever changed the way I see Chinese people, en mass. But if the root of all three is the same and can be attacked, then maybe there will be fewer problems with bikes, pedestrians and cars on the roads in China, along with flow on effects of people being more considerate of others getting off trains too.