Before I started cycling in Beijing, I used to ask myself relentlessly, “Is cycling safe in Beijing?” For the uninitiated, as I was then, the answer had to be ‘no’. Just looking at the congestion and the types of vehicles on the roads was enough. Cyclists in Beijing were either very brave or very good at cycling.
So I thought.
Then I got on Sottie’s bicycle and cycled almost 15 km from Jianguomen to Chaoyang Park. I was starting and stopping at inappropriate spots on the road, I almost collided with another cyclist on the Third Ring Road and I fell off my bike a couple of times through no fault of others. The most important thing was, I survived my first ride in over 20 years relatively intact. And that changed my view of Beijing roads and drivers.
After being asked this question upteen times by friends and acquaintances, I’ve decided to put my thoughts on the matter into a post, or three.
Cycling in Beijing can be safe depending on:
- where you ride your bike
- how fast you ride your bike
- when you ride your bike
- weather and air quality
- how often you ride your bike
Where you ride your bike & how fast you ride your bike
This is the route I take when I cycle to work everyday:
Home -> west along Liangmaqiao Road (4-lane road)-> south along Third Ring Road (6-lane road) -> arrive at Fortune Plaza bicycle parking lot.
Total distance = around 9 km.
I used to ride along the west side of Chaoyang Park instead of along the Third Ring Road, because the scenery was better. But as I leave my apartment later and later in the morning, I began noticing that Chaoyang Park Road had way more traffic lights and pedestrians than the Third Ring Road and so it made sense to go along Third Ring Road instead. Of course, there’s also more motor vehicles and exhaust fumes along the Third Ring Road and there’s no scenery to speak of, but after cycling along the same route for the last 9 months, even Chaoyang Park’s wondrous greenery has lost its shine. Getting to work on time has been claiming higher and higher priority these days.
To avoid breathing in too much exhaust fumes and Beijing’s generally polluted air, I almost always wear a Respro mask while I’m cycling. That takes care of the pollution argument.
Dealing with cars, buses, trucks, mopeds, motorbikes, ebikes and crazy pedestrians in peak hour traffic, however, is quite another matter. It’s no fun being sidelined by a bus/truck or hitting the brakes suddenly to avoid hitting something/someone, especially when you’re cycling at your favourite speed or just begun accelerating. I cycle at at average of 20 km/h, and am simultaneously hailed by one group of friends (infrequent or non-cycling) as a speed demon and rubbished by another group of friends (manic cyclists primarily from Western Europe) as an elderly snail. From experience, it’s the safest speed on Beijing roads. Go too slow and you’re constantly cut off by other vehicles. Too fast and you won’t be able to do an emergency brake when faced with an imminent headlong collision.
When should a cyclist stop? When should a cyclist accelerate? Based on my experience, it’s best to look at both the traffic lights and the oncoming traffic when deciding if I should stop or accelerate at a green light turning red and vice versa. Here’s why —
- Drivers don’t necessarily brake when they see a red light in Beijing. They might stop if there’s a policeman standing next to it. And that’s a maybe.
- Most drivers I’ve encountered while cycling in Beijing would deliberately slow down when making a turn to give me enough time and an excuse to speed past on my bike. Panicking and stopping will attract a barrage of distasteful verbal abuse from said drivers.
- When I encounters motor vehicles while cycling along designated bike lanes, I take it upon myself to return the courtesy and shout verbal abuse at the drivers.
- In China, it’s always better to be more aggressive than whoever you’re sharing a road with, unless it’s a ginourmous coach or truck.
In short, what I’m trying to say is, you need to have all your wits about you whenever you’re cycling in peak hour traffic in Beijing. Don’t assume everyone will follows road rules religiously, cycle at a reasonable speed, make sure your brakes are in a good working order and you’ll be right.*wink*