Biking to Work

Posted by on March 14, 2011

Traffic in Beijing

This is a video taken while biking to work. It’s shot with a GoPro HD camera that I’ve mounted to the handlebars of my bike.  I live around 1.6 miles from work and biking usually takes me around 10 minutes.

Biking in Beijing is generally very safe once you adapt to the “rules of the road”.  First things first no one wears a helmet biking, except for me.  Secondly you must be on high alert constantly. That doesn’t mean that you can’t ride at a leisurely pace, just your always watching and on the lookout. In fact most folks that ride bikes do so not for exercise but as a mode of transportation, thus the majority of them are not really riding very fast at all. In fact I ride at least twice as fast as anyone around me, maybe even three times as fast. Your hands always have to be on the handlebars and you have to be flexible and fluid in getting from point a to point b, you have to weave and flow. You’ll notice in the video that the concept of lane and direction is very loose. You’ll see motorcycles and even cars going the “wrong way” on your side of the road coming straight at you.

Most major roads have an actual lane dedicated for bicycles, these lanes are very often an entire lane, that is a car width wide and are completely segregated from the adjacent road by a cement curb or barrier. I happen to bike down a couple of back streets where there are no bike lanes.

Intersections and left hand turns are a combination of “might makes right” and encroachment. When there is an actual left hand turn signal at a light the light generally governs the turn. And yet there is nothing to prevent someone on a bike or a pedestrian from turning early, making their way part way across the street or intersection; stopping in the middle of the road between the lanes of traffic. Where there are no turn signals it’s a matter of inching your way out into the on-coming traffic. Much of this depends on force majeure, meaning if you have more with you than with them you can force a break. A lot of it depends on flow, the contiguous constant trickle of vehicles. An example from this morning. A van and myself (me + a van is much more of a force than just me on my bike) were attempting to turn left at a bend in the road where the majority of the oncoming cars were themselves turning left (or our right). There were about 8 oncoming cars in a row (contiguity). The van and myself kept inching our way out into the lane, forcing the oncoming cars turning left to keep cutting to their left into their oncoming lane that we were attempting to turn left into ourselves. This was possible because there were no cars on their left. Eventually there would have been a pinch point where they wouldn’t have been able to squeeze through and we could have crossed but as it was all 8 cars made it through and then there was a gap and we crossed. Likewise a large enough force on our side could have caused one of them to flinch and stop letting us through. Or one of them could have flinched anyway, or one of us could have been bold enough to actually force the issue and stick your wheel out and made them stop. A lot of it depends on how fast they are coming and how daring you feel like being.

And all of this is fluid. Too many cars coming to turn left : then stay on their left and ride the wrong way into the oncoming bicycle traffic. Amazingly there are no accidents (none that I’ve seen), people don’t get angry or yell or flip people off. It’s not that people aren’t obeying the rules, its just that the rules are different and what we consider road-rageable is just your average every day occurrence and everyone is adapted and accustomed to it. Things may not be as orderly as in the States, but 25 million people going to and fro everyday can’t all be wrong; at least if you adapt and go with the flow.

8 Responses to Biking to Work

  1. Heather in WA State

    That was fantastic, brings back memories of my time in China, and the utter craziness of getting around and arriving at my destination in one piece. Thanks for sharing.

    • mbg

      And yet it “all works”, chaotic systems have a way of reaching an agreed mechanism of utility and while its different than the US, it still functions.

  2. Kelsie

    Enjoyed watching this Mark. Be safe!

  3. Robyn

    Wow, makes me almost dizzy, amazing there aren’t any wrecks! It looks so haphazard!

  4. lavecci

    Which is the song? please!!!!!!!!!!!!1

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