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

(page 2 of 2)

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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