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Beijing and the Bicycle

Alizé Carrère is a National Geographic Young Explorer who travels the globe to illuminate both humans and animals in their amazing adaptability. In Beijing, she delves into the curious transformation of bicycle culture, and how adapting to the modern times of private car ownership is crowding out an important part of China’s past—and future. Riding...

Alizé Carrère is a National Geographic Young Explorer who travels the globe to illuminate both humans and animals in their amazing adaptability. In Beijing, she delves into the curious transformation of bicycle culture, and how adapting to the modern times of private car ownership is crowding out an important part of China’s past—and future.

Beijing’s small historical streets were never designed to accommodate the influx of cars that now squeeze their way through the car-clogged alleys. (Photo by Alizé Carrère)

Riding a bicycle is a decidedly frightening experience in a city that was once heralded as the “Kingdom of Bicycles.” While crowded streets and sidewalks are commonplace in Beijing no matter what mode of transportation one chooses to move around in (or behind, below, on top of, attached to—all such creative forms can be witnessed on a short stroll through the city), nothing could have quite prepared me for the battle scene that is a bike ride in China’s capital city.

On a recent field visit to China, I spent a couple of weeks in Beijing with a good friend and her family. Although not a born and bred Beijinger, she has miraculously navigated its streets on two wheels and pedals for the last 7 years.

In North America and Europe, we take bike lanes for granted. I’ve concluded that bike lanes are, in fact, something of a modern transport luxury. They are practically the red carpet of the concrete jungle, the lanes in which its travelers are awarded their very own bike traffic lights, steel barriers of entry to keep out the boisterous and clamoring vehicular masses, and—my personal favorite—cheerful nods of acknowledgement from fellow riders. Accustomed to such treatment, I mounted a (locally sourced and assembled) bamboo bicycle and hit the lanes like a near-show pony, ready for a showering appreciation of my sustainable and beautiful mode of mobility as I sailed through Beijing’s streets.

Upon pulling out of the building’s parking lot, I turned onto one of the main drags and promptly took my place in the bike lane. In an effort to keep up with my friend, I realized I was elbowing off all kinds of unwelcome traffic that appeared to be coming at me from every imaginable direction. I felt my shoulders lodge themselves behind my ears, white splotches spreading on my knuckles as I tensed over my bike handles.

In the first few seconds of cycling, I dodged a succession of objects and scenarios that went something like this: a smoking food truck, a man fixing his broken scooter with several engine parts splattered about, a shirtless old man peddling so slowly that I feared the swoosh of my passing might tip him over, a row of parked cars, a pedestrian texting on her cell phone, a motorcyclist weaving full throttle between everyone and everything, a family of four on an electric scooter going against traffic, a street cleaner on a wagon bicycle stopping every few meters to pick up litter, and, the ultimate intruder, a car honking incessantly behind me so that I might clear the way for his passing—in the bike lane.

How, you may ask, is it even possible for all of these things to fit into a bike lane? This is where history steps in, and it reveals an interesting twist of bicycle symbolism with the changing times.

Photograph by Alizé Carrère
(Photo by Alizé Carrère)

Bike lanes in Beijing are surprisingly wide. They were built this way to accommodate the whopping nine million bicycles once said to be contained within the city’s limits. Just a few decades ago, bicycles dominated the roads—a photo of Beijing’s streets in the 70’s will reveal a likeness similar to that of Amsterdam’s summer 2014 commuter traffic.

After Mao Zedong’s Communist Party came into power in 1949, the bicycle industry boomed and became the government-approved form of transport—a symbol of an egalitarian social system that didn’t grant much comfort but assured reliability. In fact, up until the 1980s, owning a bicycle was one of the four objects that signified a modern, well-to-do man in Communist China. Many Chinese sought to own sanshengyixiang, or “three rounds and sound”: a wristwatch, bicycle, sewing machine and radio.

In recent years, however, bicycles have been swapped out for cars. Private car ownership has sky-rocketed and, for many Chinese, bicycles are markers of cultural backwardness, a bit too utilitarian for a rising middle and upper class.

The result? Cars and motor vehicles taking to bike lanes to beat gridlock traffic or to park. In other places, once-broad bike lanes are being narrowed down to a mere sliver so as to accommodate the growing number of vehicles. In all cases, they have made bike lanes a hysterical and lawless strip of pavement that have you wondering if your head is screwed on straight.

Fortunately, there is a budding revival of bike culture among the Chinese youth. The following is small, to be sure, but a ride around Beijing’s historical Hutongs, or small back alleys formed by the lines of traditional courtyard residences, will offer a glimpse at charming hotspots for many of the city’s bike aficionados.

Biking through the hutongs, Beijing. Photograph by Alizé Carrère
Biking through the hutongs, Beijing. (Photo by Alizé Carrère)

It was in the Hutongs where I also had the pleasure of joining my friend while she attended a bamboo bicycle building workshop, led by a young Chinese-American who has made it his mission to engage the city’s residents in issues of urban mobility. Tucked in a small studio on a charming side hutong, Bamboo Bicycles Beijing holds workshops that teach local residents how to build a bike out of a regionally significant material, while also addressing the need for diverse forms of transport.

Bamboo bike frames in construction at a Bamboo Bicycles Beijing workshop. Photograph by Alizé Carrère
Bamboo bike frames in construction at a Bamboo Bicycle Beijing workshop. (Photo by Alizé Carrère)

In addition to learning that there is not a single way of utilizing bamboo that won’t save the world, I marveled at the sight of several sleek, earthy bike frames mounted on the walls of the workspaces. BBB has even had their first organized bamboo bicycle bike ride around Tiananmen Square, with at least a dozen workshop participants taking part.

The direction the private car trend is taking in China seems counterintuitive when one looks at two of their most pressing modern-day challenges: a ballooning population and some of the world’s most stifling air pollution. While the rest of the world seeks to promote bike culture and put in place miles upon miles of bike lanes, China’s appear to be slowly shrinking.

As far as transportation goes, a backward glance would seem to offer much in the way of a less crowded and polluted future.

Photograph by Alizé Carrère
(Photo by Alizé Carrère)

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Alizé Carrère
Alizé Carrère is National Geographic Explorer researching human adaptability to environmental change. She began her research in the highlands of Madagascar, uncovering an innovative method of agricultural adaptation that has emerged in the face of severe deforestation. Known to locals as "lavaka", literally meaning "hole", they are massive erosional gullies that provide surprising agricultural and socio-economic opportunities on an otherwise deforested landscape. She is now working on a series of short films that showcase remarkable human resilience and creativity in the face of environmental change. Alizé obtained her B.A. and M.Sc. from McGill University, and is currently pursuing her PhD at the University of Miami in Ecosystem Science and Policy.