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Shanghai by Bike

Before Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution 40 years ago, the nation was keen on modernizing, and bicycles were a sign of progress. Above: Chinese propaganda posters from the 1940s and '50s.

THE FIRST MORNING I WAS IN SHANGHAI, CHINA, I was awakened at 4:45 by an explosion in the alley just outside my hotel. Naturally, I ran to the window and looked out, filled with those keen fears common to travelers: Were there, like, terrorists here? In my research beforehand, had I overlooked some local guerrilla war?

The explosions kept coming--bam! bam! bam!--followed by a few smaller, sprightlier pops. In time, groggily, I remembered that the Chinese have a tradition of celebrating the launch of new businesses by setting off firecrackers.

I stood there listening, and eventually I saw something emerge from the billowing smoke: a man on a bicycle. He was riding slowly and unperturbed, his posture erect, as a small package rattled in his handlebar basket. A moment later, there were more cyclists: a guy talking on a cell phone, an old woman, and a workman in a hard hat with a cardboard box strapped to his rack. They all glided quietly out of the smoke through the rain-glistening streets.

The sight stirred a certain joy in my heart, for I had come to China with a manila folder crammed with bad news: In a country long celebrated as a kingdom of bicycles, this noble and practical form of transport was, it seemed, quickly becoming a relic, a victim of China's march toward prosperity. According to the news clips, China was racing to emulate the transportation schemes of the most ill-planned U.S. cities--Houston, say, or Los Angeles. It was spending $40 billion each year to construct what would be, in 2008, the world's most extensive interstate-highway system. The state-owned Shanghai Auto Industry Corporation, recently allied in a joint venture with General Motors, now employs 65,000 people.

In 2005, China became the world's second-largest car market, selling nearly 6 million vehicles. Suddenly it was littering its western high deserts with oil pumps and sucking oceans of crude out of Sudan. Meanwhile, Shanghai was cracking down on cyclists, barring them from select vehicle-heavy downtown streets and increasing by tenfold the fines it imposed on two-wheeled lawbreakers. Ridership was way down. While 60 percent of Shanghai's population commuted by bike in 1995, only 27 percent did so in 2000--and the city's power brokers seemed happy about the decline. As one former deputy mayor saw it, "The bicycle is just a reminder of past poverty."

Grim, yes, but still I wanted to see China myself and measure how that vast land--more crowded than we can fathom--is changing. I could have toured Shanghai's factories or super-haute clothing stores, musing on how the Chinese have been seized by the same consumerist desires that drive Americans. But I'm a devout urban cyclist. I ride almost everywhere in Portland, Oregon, scarcely driving, and I was taken by how neatly the story of China's eco-future seemed to boil down to bikes versus cars. So I went to its biggest and fastest-growing city--Shanghai, population 17 million--to determine whether the equation is really that simple.

MORE THAN 5 MILLION BICYCLISTS still pedal the streets of Shanghai, and as dawn broke that first morning, they appeared in mounting throngs outside my hotel. Sichuan Street, a straight, flat downtown roadway off-limits to buses and cars, was so thick with bike traffic that pedestrians could not cross for minutes at a time. As I watched from my window, an old man on a rusty tricycle transporting a load of bamboo stalks was cut off by five electric bikes puttering by. A woman rode along one-handed, an umbrella over her head. The whole scrambled mess was as foreign to me as the hongshao shan I would eat for breakfast. I wanted to get on the pavement and ride.

I rented a mountain bike from an American expat. It was silver and shiny with fat, knobby tires and thick, cushy shocks, and I began bombing about on the streets. On pancake-flat marshland, Shanghai has been built organically over centuries, so the roads all seem to curl in on each other. Factor in the myriad one-way thoroughfares and No Biking signs, which are inevitably posted on the straightest, most direct routes, and you can understand why I was constantly lost. I'd occasionally stop to ask directions in guidebook Chinese, and small crowds would gather, puzzled, staring at me with great concern, as though I were giving voice to an urgent medical condition. Then I'd shoot back into the maze.

Every so often, I'd glimpse Shanghai's brand-new business district--Pudong, on the east side of the Huangpu River--with its elegant 88-story Jin Mao Tower, home to the world's largest Hyatt Regency, and beside it the slender Oriental Pearl TV Tower, with its three pink pearl-like globes. Then I'd round a corner and find myself waiting at a stoplight beside a haggard scrap-metal salesman and 300 other cyclists. One rider would hail me--"Lao wai!" ("Foreigner!")--and as the light changed, there'd be a chorus of horns and the menacing sound of motors close by.

In Shanghai, and throughout China, motorcycles powered by liquefied petroleum gas--which is relatively clean-burning, emitting few volatile organic compounds--are allowed in the bike lanes, along with slighter, slower electric bicycles. The LPG bikes are a sort of stepping stone to cars. Topping out at about $1,200 apiece, they number more than a million in Shanghai. Their drivers all aspire, it seems, to be slalom champions. Twice LPG riders brushed up against my shoulder, pushing me out of their path. Another time I raced to follow a honking LPG bike as it carved a smooth path through the slow, pedaling crowd. For a few seconds, I felt as though I were connected to the very soul of the city. Then I fell off the pace, wheezing, and a phalanx of LPG bikes screamed by, honking.

My eyes stung constantly, and my throat was sore. I was pedaling through some of the planet's most polluted air--a toxic stew of sulfur belched by Shanghai's myriad factories, most of which are powered by coal. I also felt keenly self-conscious. Everyone around me wore drab street clothes, while I was dressed in a fluorescent yellow commuter jacket. I sported one of the few bike helmets in China and pedaled a snazzy ride that rented for $19 a day--roughly half of what most new bikes cost in Shanghai.

I'd wanted to rent a Chinese bicycle--a Flying Pigeon or a Forever. But when I went to the rental shop, all the bikes were tiny rattletraps. I looked at their rusty chains and dinged frames and went through a painful reckoning. It was clear that I wasn't willing to go native here--and that my solidarity with Shanghai's cyclists was, in fact, a contrivance. Back home, I ride a $1,000 Trek.

No doubt some of the riders around me worked in the city's factories assembling the high-end doodads I use on my Trek. Typically, their monthly income is at or near Shanghai's minimum wage: 690 yuan (about $85). They bike because Shanghai's bus and Metro system is, for them, expensive, charging close to 36 cents a trip. They ride without lights and with preschool kids balanced on their racks amid perilous conditions. The streets of China see 600 fatal traffic accidents daily; cyclists are frequently the ones killed.

Meanwhile, a new, sweeter world is blossoming alongside the bike lanes. With Shanghai's increasing allure to the likes of French manufacturing magnates, swank nightclubs are proliferating, tantalizing passersby with mysterious dim lighting and $7 tumblers of Johnny Walker Red. I stepped into just such a club one evening and watched as a super-sexy Chinese chanteuse yearned for things glamorous, most notably music television, in somewhat tortured English. "I want my, I want my, I want my STV!" she mispronounced avidly.

Later, I saw a looming billboard photo of cars streaming along a highway at dusk. The sky in the picture was rose-colored and silky, as in a dream, and the glow from the taillights was blurry, so the red dots streamed together like so many droplets of blood flowing through veins. "New Shanghai," read the ad copy. "New Life."

I WANTED TO TALK TO SOME CHINESE CYCLISTS, so I posted an Internet ad for an interpreter and got a response from Gorden, a 25-year-old university grad who was between jobs in the import-export business. The spelling of his name gave me pause, but he wrote, "I grew up in the countryside, i can ride a bike for 3 hours (not joking >-<)," so I hired him.

I expected Gorden to be jolly in a robust, backwoods way, but when I met him in a cafe, he was wearing a crisp, black velour blazer and sipping a demitasse with a worldly discernment I came to associate with the new China. He was carrying three cell phones and had arrived sans bike. "People today don't want to waste their time riding a bicycle," he said. "Everybody just wants to make money--more and more money. It doesn't matter how you make the money, just that you have it. And everybody wants a car, of course."

Gorden grew up in a rural area about 500 miles from Shanghai, and his parents are rice and cotton farmers. His home was so remote that he boarded at his high school and spent two hours pedaling his battered single-speed bike to his family every Friday. Now, each time he goes home for Chinese New Year, he has to spend about 17 hours riding the train. "It's so crowded that usually you can't get a seat," he said. "You are standing up the whole way. I want to get a car, so I can drive home myself--that is my dream."

But what kind of car? Gorden grinned broadly. "A BMW or a Benz, of course!" he said, adding that he also liked the Jaguar hood symbol. "Just a large cat--very cool. But I think I will buy something practical like a Honda Accord or an Elantra, or maybe a Toyota Crown or a Lexus."

Eventually, I rented Gorden a bike, and we rode hastily, selecting interviewees from the cycling swarms. I'd read that Shanghai's riders felt squeezed out by cars, and indeed I heard some discontent. "There are more and more roads," said Kao Gen Ying, a 69-year-old retiree, "and so"--he smashed his hands together--"more cars and more crashes. And what if I want to ride down one of those streets that are off-limits to bikes? I have to dare the policeman. It's not convenient."

Most cyclists didn't share Kao's disdain, though. They were happy with the way Shanghai is modernizing. "The road is better paved now," said Bai Zhi Feng, a recycler who was pulling a cart overloaded with cardboard. "It's smoother."

"The road for bikes is wider than before," said Hu Hua, a maid, noting that when Shanghai closed some downtown streets to cyclists, it also closed some lesser roads (such as Sichuan, near my hotel) to motorists.

At one point, Gorden and I saw a middle-aged shoe salesman, Zhang Zhong, teetering along by the curb, a huge stack of shoe boxes balanced on his homemade wooden bike rack. A bus rounded a corner and put the crunch on, grazing the boxes. Shoes went flying everywhere, but still Zhang, who was unscathed, voiced a happy faith that progress is blessing Shanghai. "There are more cars and more people, yes," he said as he picked up his scattered shoes, "but the police control is better now, and the cars obey the traffic laws, mostly."

I saw things differently. At intersections, motorists sailed right through the cycling crowds, honking with the entitled air of emperors riding sedan chairs. The cyclists I saw all tolerated it without protest. "In China," Gorden explained, "most of the cyclists are down-class. It's unfair when you are born, and so you are used to it." He spoke with a cool distance--he was above these people now--and at times during interviews, he grew dismissive. "What that guy just said isn't important," he said once. Later he stopped translating mid-sentence so he could answer his cell. In murmurous English, he said something about a "special massage" and "very pretty young Chinese girls."

When it finally dawned on me that the kid was pimping while I paid him to work for me, I about bit his head off. I stuck with him, though, because savvy, educated young English speakers willing to cruise the grimy streets on a bike were scant in Shanghai, and the truth is we had many splendid adventures.

One afternoon, Gorden and I came upon a Jaguar and Land Rover dealership, entered the showroom, and sat down on a black leather couch before a video screen that showed cheerful white people thrashing their Land Rovers through pristine mountain forests and rivers. "Very cool," Gorden said. "I like Land Rovers. But they are for the extremely wealthy." He was trying to be nonchalant, I think, but an innocent awe seeped into his voice.

AS GORDEN AND I TOURED THE CITY, construction crews worked day and night building and widening roads. Shanghai is now completing a "middle ring" to encircle downtown and most close-in neighborhoods and is adding lanes to Jiangsu Road, a major thoroughfare near downtown. But the campaign has a certain aura of failure about it because a vicious cycle is at work in China's cities. The government frenetically throws up new highways, and then, almost immediately, the roads reach vehicle-flow levels forecast for 20 years hence.

It's not that China is clogged with cars. There were still only about eight vehicles per 1,000 people in 2004, which is approximately where the United States stood in 1920. But most cars are in the cities, where wealthy people live, and car ownership is increasing by 15 percent per year, faster than anywhere else in the world. As the nation becomes richer, people suddenly have the means to travel--to zip away to the beach for the weekend or to visit families that still live in remote areas. China's urban planners are hell-bent on meeting an ever-mounting hunger for mobility.

"If you go to a conference in China, everyone there is bragging about their city's new roads," said Lee Schipper, director of research at Embarq, a transportation think tank affiliated with the Washington, D.C.-based World Resources Institute. "They're saying, 'Our highways are better than yours.'"

When I spoke to Li Jian, a graduate student in transit planning at Shanghai's Fudan University, he was adamant that China needs to build highways. In the United States, he said, "you are rich. You have a choice whether to develop. But if we chose not to build roads, it would be inhuman to poor people." Li stressed that China's new roads will help bolster a burgeoning middle class--and he's right. If there's a highway connecting Chengdu to Beijing, for example, companies like Intel and Hewlett-Packard will more likely locate there. The children of destitute shepherds can come into the cubicles. Remote villages can get medical supplies.

In the cities, though, China's frantic road-building initiative will mainly benefit the elite. In Shanghai--and throughout China--urban roadways are widened to make way for more cars. "The government makes people move out, and then it tears their buildings down and uses the cycling lanes for car traffic," explained Simon Babes, general manager of the Chinese branch of Colin Buchanan, a British transport consultancy. "Poor people and cyclists lose out."

Yet it would be wrong to dismiss the municipality of Shanghai as cretinous, because it has made many green decisions. Over the past three years, for instance, it's turned a ravaged shantytown along Shuzhou Creek, a Huangpu tributary, into a greenway with hiking paths and delicate bamboo groves. It's shunted many of its factories away from downtown, into vast industrial zones, thereby improving air quality for residents. It's outlawed regular gas-powered motorcycles, which were deemed too polluting, and given their owners incentives to buy LPG bikes. It's started requiring emissions tests for cars and established itself as one of the few cities in the world that strategically limit the number of auto license plates distributed each month. Today Shanghai gives out nearly 4,000, selling most at auctions for about $4,600 apiece. The auction program is aimed mainly at reducing traffic, but in a morally complex way it also reduces pollution by ensuring that only rich people drive. Rich people are, of course, more inclined to buy newer, and thus cleaner-burning, vehicles.

The biggest boon to Shanghai's environment, though, is the city's Metro system. Launched in 1995, it will soon boast 11 lines and about 6 million riders a day, making it one of the busiest transit systems in the world. Already, it carries 1.7 million people a day, in cars twice as big as those in New York City's subway, which means that rush hour is a sort of underground football scrum. When I tried to ride out of People's Square one morning at eight, the cars were crammed, as usual. Two burly young men boarded the train and entwined arms, then shoved in unison, compacting the crowd until they'd carved out a standing spot. A courteous prerecorded voice chimed on the overhead speakers, the doors closed, the train whooshed on, and everyone (save for a woman pressed into a pole, wincing) rode along in relative peace. I was amazed that human transport could actually work at such volume--and was chagrined only that Shanghai officials regard the Metro as a replacement for bikes, not cars.

The city's most recent policy statement, the 2002 "Shanghai Municipality Transport White Paper," noted, "The bicycle is the most popular transport tool by the citizens. But the interference of motor and nonmotor vehicles among one another not only lowers the operation efficiency of roads, but also threatens traffic safety." The paper proposed a solution: "actively guiding the transfer of long-distance travel by bicycle to public transit." By 2020, Shanghai's policymakers hoped, no one in the sprawling city would travel more than 30 minutes by bike.

THE WHOLE TIME I WAS IN SHANGHAI, I kept searching for cyclists demanding their share of the road. I felt sure they were out there somewhere. In a 2004 piece for the International Herald Tribune, reporter Philip J. Cunningham wrote that Beijing was witnessing a new "David-versus-Goliath struggle" in which pedestrians were defiantly "playing chicken with ... sport-utility vehicles and black-tinted limousines." China's walking radicals were stymieing cars by littering the streets with makeshift barricades. "A few bricks or bottles here, a broken paving stone or some rubbish there. Notice has been served," he wrote. "The streets, and most especially the back alleys, will not be yielded without resistance."

Cunningham underscored his point last year, reporting, "In July, in Chizhou, in Anhui Province, a mob of 10,000 flipped, smashed, and torched three police cars and a Toyota sedan after the sedan collided with a bicyclist." Many news stories corroborate Cunningham's take on Chizhou, but after a few days in Shanghai, I deemed it significant that he is American. Almost every expat I met in Shanghai burned with a protective zeal for Chinese cycling. Indeed, when I met Mark O'Neill, a British reporter for the English-language South China Morning Post, he was so thrilled to find a journalist biking around Shanghai that he celebrated me in print as a "gaunt" emissary of two-wheeled virtue. "Will the Sierra Club message be heard," he wondered, "beneath the roar and smog of the Shanghai traffic?"

I wasn't sure that it would, for I didn't speak to any Chinese cyclists intent on halting Shanghai's anti-bike drift--and there is not a single nongovernmental organization in the city advocating for cyclists.

I figured that at least China's bicycle manufacturers would be lobbying for cyclists' rights since they have a financial stake. So I arranged an interview with the CEO of Forever Bicycle, which sold 2.4 million bikes last year--and found myself on a surreal adventure. First, I was sent to the Pudong office of a Forever spokesman named Lawrence Yu. Yu guided me into a waiting company van, and then we drove on an eight-lane highway to the other side of Pudong as Yu spoke of Forever's CEO in exalted tones, always referring to him as "our chairman."

Finally, we arrived at a sprawling, gated compound almost devoid of people. This was Forever's new factory one month before opening. The trench-coated guards at the gatehouse gave us a stiff salute, then we rolled down the drive, where a chauffeur was letting Forever CEO Gu Juexin out of his immaculate Toyota Royal Crown. We all went inside the factory, which was empty, and sat down in an unheated concrete room the size of a tennis court. Gu was fiftyish, casually clad in a black turtleneck, and patient with me, in part because he figured that my story would help him sell bikes at Wal-Mart. "Our chairman has decided that we should now sell half our bikes overseas," Yu explained, translating.

I asked about Forever's domestic prospects. "Nowadays," Yu said, "living standards are much higher in China. People will start to use the bicycle for sport and leisure, like in your country. But the bicycle is not a transportation tool so much anymore. We have cars now, and the car can change people's lives. Our chairman thinks that the Chinese people need more cars. And more and more roads, of course!"

I couldn't think of any other questions to ask, so for a few seconds we sat there, Yu, the chairman, and I, in absolute silence.

I KEPT RIDING THE STREETS OF SHANGHAI, and one morning, with Gorden, I met a 55-year-old cyclist, Zhu Han Rong, as he crawled home from work. Zhu was slight, with thinning black hair and a black jacket, and he rode a beat-up single-speed with a ripped seat wrapped in a white plastic shopping bag. He pedaled so carefully, and with such serene slowness, that I regarded him as an ancient. I soon learned that he'd been riding around Shanghai for almost 50 years. He remembered a time, back in the 1960s, when the bicycle was, along with the sewing machine and the cassette player, one of the "three luxuries" a respectable Chinese family could dream of.

Zhu said, "Bicycling is more convenient than the bus. You can go wherever you want, and even if I had a car, I'd use the bike for short distances." Our chat didn't go deep, but there was a genial warmth that transcended language, so Zhu invited us to meet him again--and ride home with him from his workplace, the Golden Riverview Hotel, where he was a graveyard-shift boiler mechanic.

The Golden is a four-star establishment, with a vast marble-floored lobby, and when Gorden and I strolled inside, we found Zhu awaiting us in a royal blue jumpsuit bearing an English name tag: "Jackson." He greeted us exuberantly, as though we were visiting dignitaries, but said that, unfortunately, he had to meet with his boss.

We waited. After a long while, Zhu fished his bike out of the basement, and we all rode away. We were visiting his mother, it turned out. At first, we rode through her old neighborhood, where Zhu grew up. "The streets here used to be cobblestone," he said wistfully. "I used to play marbles right over there." Now the streets are paved. Zhu's old building had been razed to make way for condo towers, and his mother had been relocated--to a more spacious apartment way out on the burgeoning western fringe of the metropolis.

As we rode, the fruit and vegetable stands petered out, and in time we were rolling by the Shanghai-Nanjing Expressway, which, at 10 a.m., was gridlocked. We entered a sort of concrete canyon, a vast, echoey construction site where hundreds of workers were building an elevated freeway in the pattering rain, and passed a mall and a Volkswagen dealership. Zhu was quiet now, contained, and I asked Gorden what was going on.

"He was fired today," Gorden said. "He just lost his family's only income."

At Zhu's mother's, there was a feast waiting for us--pickled eggs, sweet lotus, and chicken. "Eat!" Zhu insisted. "You have traveled all this way! Enjoy!" Even though it was still before noon, he kept refilling my wine glass--and his generosity made me feel a little bit sad. American environmentalists, I thought, always want the rest of the world to be like Zhu: low-tech, quaint, and ecologically light on their feet. But the rest of the world doesn't want to be low-tech and quaint. They want their "STV" too--and in Shanghai, as China strives to become the next superpower, that desire will drive nearly everything. Poor people will get shoved to the side of the road, forgotten.

And I will always feel a little complicit. I had to leave Zhu's in a hurry that morning. I had an appointment at the Jin Mao Tower, with General Motors, and you don't keep GM waiting. Gorden and I chugged our wine and bolted away on our bikes.

We rode fast, I in my bright yellow jacket and Gorden in a wrinkled, old blue windbreaker, a couple of sizes too big, that I'd lent him. We splashed through puddles and skittered through red lights, dodging cars. We reveled in the joy of being strong--and I was filled with this sense that, really, the future is ours. Soon enough, the fate of the earth will hinge on the decisions people like Gorden and me make, moment to moment, as we inhabit a world defined by limited resources. We will need to decide: Should we go to the store on our bikes, or do we drive there? Do we build that golf course in the desert? Do we really need that second DVD player?

Gorden will make his decisions in the first giddy flush of China's new capitalist surge. I will make mine knowing full well that buying a Benz does not bring one happiness. But we will be in the struggle together, both of us figuring things out beneath the same threatening sky.

Bill Donahue is a Portland, Oregon-based writer whose work has appeared in the Washington Post Magazine, Outside, and Men's Journal. His last story for Sierra was "Bold Man and the Sea" (November/December 2004).



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