China, Bicycles, and Culture

I love Macro Polo. I read it regularly and urge anyone with a passing interest in China to give it a browse. I also love Macro Polo’s most recent post  about bikes in China. The love I have for the post is deep, because in the recesses of my heart exists a counterweight of hate for bicycles in Beijing. The almost romantic whirl of millions of wheel spokes captures many visitor’s hearts. The cursing of average commuters funneled into artificially narrow sidewalks induces PTSD for others.

I loved my bike in China. I loved that the back brakes didn’t work. I loved joining a throng of pedestrians and motorists with one governing rule: there are no rules. The secret to appreciating a foreign culture is to live as they do: eat their food, speak their language, and hurl concise insults at motorists you play chicken with.  My bike wasn’t just a way to drastically shorten my commute (leave it locked near your subway exit of choice), it was a quintessential manifestation of modern China, good and bad.

I have roughly 4,000 pictures of my time in Asia. One of the first folders I created is simply titled ‘bikes.’  These are my favorites.

Shared bikes in Beijing’s CBD clog sidewalks. Rush hour pedestrian traffic is greatly constrained due to this.

Users can pay more for ‘cooler’ bikes. Note the width of the tires in the second photo.

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Bikes can be found everywhere due to an army of shirtless men that deposit bikes (bikes are equipped with GPS) in high traffic areas.

Bikes can be found in crosswalks. Note the couple struggling to make their way across.

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Bikes can be found in rivers.

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Bikes can be found in piles.

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Most importantly, bikes can be found clogging sidewalks.

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There are many types of bikes. Pictured above are university bikes (清华大学).

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Bikes pulled by dogs.

Unwanted Bikes

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Really unwanted bikes.

In France in the 1880s, the cheapest model of bicycle listed in catalogs and sales brochures cost the equivalent of six months of the average worker’s wage. And this was a relatively rudimentary bicycle, “which had wheels covered with just a strip of solid rubber and only one brake that pressed directly against the front rim.” Technological progress made it possible to reduce the price to one month’s wage by 1910. Progress continued, and by the 1960s one could buy a quality bicycle inFrance for less than a week’s average wage. One can use bikes in France to see how purchasing power rose by a factor of 40 between 1890 and 1970.  Transportation, whether by Toyota or trike, matters.

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Thanks for reading.

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