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Shanghai by Bike
Dodging cars as China drives toward development
By Bill Donahue
September/October 2006

A Tale of Two Superpowers

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.

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Photos courtesy of Amir Moghaddass Esfehani; used with permission

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