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
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
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
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.
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."
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
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.