Publication: Springtime in the bike lane

From the new and revamped Chin Daily Metro:

http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/metro/2010-03/05/content_9545641.htm

Spring time in bike lane

Ever since the first snow, which came the end of October, marked the beginning of an early winter in Beijing, I’ve been asking when spring will come. On Monday, I woke up again to a blanket of white in the garden and the swishing sound of brooms sweeping pavement, my hopes for an early spring dashed.

Spring time in bike lane

The cold of winter is unpleasant, but not unbearable. I don’t mind pristine snow turning into murky slush on the streets. What does bother me about this season is that it keeps me from being in my favorite place in Beijing – in the bike lane.

To grow up Chinese is to grow up on two wheels, but it wasn’t until I was an adult and started experiencing Beijing traffic in a car that I truly began to appreciate the bicycle. Once, I was headed to a location just three kilometers north of my apartment. Google Maps estimated it was a six-minute car ride away. In reality, it took me twenty-five minutes inching along in a taxi to get there.

That was when I decided to start turning again to my blue bicycle, a most convenient vehicle outfitted with a low top tube and a basket, perfect for a girl’s skirt and purse. I figured that while the cars sit in agonizing gridlock, I could fly by on my bike.

But I soon learned that getting back on the bike would not mean pedaling through the same Beijing that I explored on the backseat of my mother’s bicycle twenty years ago. Out of practice, I was by far the slowest cyclist on the road. Senior citizens pedaling bicycles laden with goods from the outdoor markets passed me. Even rusty homemade contraptions were traveling faster than me on my blue bicycle.

Speed wasn’t my only problem. I was also grossly out of touch with the rules of the road. The last time I rode on a bicycle here there were still traffic policemen waving their arms at every intersection. When I saw them I would hop off the backseat because it was against the law to carry passengers on a bike, although every mother and child did it anyway.

Compare then with now, when following traffic rules are widely ignored. As soon as I rolled out of the gate of my peaceful apartment complex, vehicles came at me from six directions. Bikes, cars, motorcycles and those perpetually honking electric bikes swerved dangerously close to me. I quickly learned that survival in the bike lane meant ignoring traffic lights, working my way into the middle of a pack, and going in the same direction, and at the same time, as everybody else.

Despite the road hazards, I love rediscovering the freedom of traveling by bike. Thankfully, Beijing has extensively paved bicycle lanes. I can come and go when I please, without fighting to hail a taxi or haggling with “black cab” drivers. I even enjoy the camaraderie of jostling for my place in the bicycle hoard and shouting “Kanche” to anyone veering too close for comfort. Getting around Beijing by bicycle makes me feel truly a part of the city.

Some days – those precious few days each month – when the air is crisp and the sky is blue, pedaling on my bike reminds me of my childhood when I watched the wonders of the city go by in a blur on the back of my mother’s bike.

But most days, even when it’s muggy and crowded, I get a thrill out of transporting myself from place to place independently, without spending a dime and doing no harm to the environment. And so, I keep watching for signs of spring while dusting off my blue bicycle.

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