A World of Bicycles

The first time I went to China, in the mid 80’s there were very few cars on the road. Vehicular traffic consisted of busses, blue trucks, a few taxis, and even fewer cars, which belonged to government officials. And there were bikes. Lots of them. In fact, on most streets there were two skinny lanes down the center, one in each direction for cars, then wide bike lanes on each side. These bike lanes were sometimes twice the width of the regular traffic lanes. It seemed like everyone was riding bikes. As an avid cyclist, this suited me well. Rush hour consisted of being literally shoulder to shoulder and wheel to wheel with thousands of other cyclists.

Today there are still lots of bikes on the road, but fewer than there used to be. The bike lanes are narrower, but still substantial, and prominent compared to the US. Private cars are becoming quite common in the cities and there are taxis all over the place. There are now many motorcycles, scooters, and electric bikes as well. But bicycles still play an important transportation role for many Chinese. In fact, it can be argued that even in today’s modern China, cycling is still a very convenient and inexpensive way to get around. For many Chinese that is all they can afford. It can even be faster to get around in today’s very congested cities.

Every time I go to China and plan to stay awhile, I buy a bike. I love the freedom of zipping around the city at will. If you are fairly fit it is totally reasonable to ride all the way across a large city. In fact, in the city of Nanjing I would routinely ride from the Gulou area around Nanjing University campus to the markets in the southern part of the city. It would take around 45 minutes one way. (Nanjing is a city of around 8 million people). Of course it helps that I love cycling. In fact, I have been commuting year round by bicycle for 27 years.

Major shopping areas have huge bicycle parking lots. You pay an attendant a small fee and recieve a little paper ticket. You put this on your bike and they watch it for you. When you return, provide the ticket and they let you retrieve your bike. Bikes are also parked along nearly every road in commercial areas.

typical bicycle parking lot

Compared to the US, bicycles are very inexpensive, especially if you buy a Chinese brand. Popular Chinese bicycle brands include 飞鸽 fēigē Flying Pigeon,邦德富士达 bāngdéfùshìdá Battle, 永久 yǒngjiǔ Yongjiu, 凤凰 fènghuáng Fenghuang, and 捷安特 jié āntè Giant (originally a Taiwan brand). You may be able to find some foreign brands in the bigger cities but you will pay quite a bit more for them. The problem with buying a shiny new bike, is that they are immediate targets for thieves, and bicycles do get stolen pretty regularly. Another option is to buy a used bike. There are used bike markets but the sellers at these markets are really good at ripping people off. The good news is that there are bicycle repair stands all over every city and repairing a bicycle is really cheap compared to the US. I once badly bent a back rim on my bike. It was so out of true that the wheel would not even turn and several spokes were broken. I took it to the repair stand pictured below and the guy had it fixed in about two hours. It cost the equivalent of $4.50 USD. 

Bicycles are not only used for personal transportation, but also for transporting goods. Cargo bikes are a bit of a novelty here in the US, but in China they are everywhere. The heavier duty cargo bikes often are technically trikes with three wheels. I’ve seen some pretty amazing things on the back of a bicycle, including refrigerators, beds, large cabinets, five gallon water bottles, live chickens, large bags of rice, recycled goods, and so on. Below are a few photos of some cargo bikes. Check out the five gallon waterbottles—count them— 7 on one bike!


the trash collector

Street vendors will often use bikes to transport their goods and they sell their goods from the back of their bike.

The photo below shows another kind of cargo bike used specifically in Northeastern China. It is called a 倒骑驴 dǎoqílǘ.

photo courtesy of baidu

The guy in the picture below is a mover. The sign says that he will move furniture, electronics, washing machines, bicycles, water heaters, and a few other things.

bike mover

I never attempted such a heroic bicycling feat. The closest I came was a few years ago when our family spent a semester in Nanjing. After renting an apartment we needed to get some household goods. My wife and I (she sitting on the back rack) rode down to a local department store and bought sheets, blankets, pillows, foams pads for the boys to sleep on, and a number of other things. I had seen guys pedaling around with huge loads on their bikes so I was determined to get all this stuff home without having to hail a taxi. I got some of the ubiquitous pink twine and we started lashing things down. My wife sat on the back rack holding the foam pads, along with several bags. I had large plastic bags hanging from each handlebar. We slowly and steadily made our way through the crowds back to our apartment, about two miles away. No one seemed to pay us much attention. I wish I had a picture of that.

So, when you get to China, buy a bike and start exploring. It really is the best way to see a city.

9 thoughts on “A World of Bicycles

  1. This is incredible! I would have never believed a person could haul 7, 5 gallon water containers on a bike if I had not seen the picture myself. Now I ask myself, how do they haul a refrigerator?……

  2. Pingback: cargo wednesdays… | KEIRIN cycle culture café. BERLIN

  3. I love cycling. This sounds great! Really amazing what can be done with bikes. Here in the U.S. we should start moving in that direction.

  4. When I went to China, it was awesome to see how the rise of phone apps influenced the bicycle market. Many of my colleagues would use the app as an accessible way to ride bikes for cheap to get around Shanghai. I was always nervous to ride my bike because traffic in China made me really nervous.

  5. Cycling in China is a great option for many as it is cheap, quick, and good for the environment. It almost seems as though bicycles are part of the culture itself due to the vast number of bicycles present, the regularity of bicycle shops, the use of bicycles to transport goods, the roads being designed with cyclists in mind, and even the amount of theft they attract. Crazy to think of rush hour with so many cyclists on the road, must be difficult to drive and even ride at such a time of the day.

  6. Its crazy how bikes are the main form of transportation and travel around China. People use bikes to transport goods such as fridges, water, and even other bikes! It’s still upsetting to hear that people need to ride run-down bikes because bike thieves are everywhere! However, it is nice to know that bikes are inexpensive in the case of them getting stolen. I wish more places around the world had a system such as this, with people on bikes everywhere. It is a good form of exercise and really good for the environment. If more people were to vend and transport things on bikes, no matter how long it would take.

  7. Biking is one of the most important modes of transportation in China. Having grown up in Shanghai I can attest to the utility of bikes even amongst foreigners and tourists. In my senior year of high school, the OFO bikes came to Shanghai and they were essentially bikes you could rent for 1 RMB and leave anywhere. These bikes quickly took over and now there are many companies which cater to the rent-a-bikes. The large appeal of these bikes have to do with the fact that Shanghai is a bustling city and while traffic can be made, bikes allow individuals to get places quickly and inexpensively.

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