An Immigrant Returns: Comparing Bike Cultures

(left photo by Brian Jeffery Beggerly, Creative Commons license, right photo by Phil Davis, Creative Commons license)

(left photo by Brian Jeffery Beggerly, right photo by Phil Davis, both Creative Commons license)

This is the second of three articles written for Voices of NY by Rong Xiaoqing, a reporter with Sing Tao Daily in New York.

I learned to ride a bicycle when I was in the 2nd grade of primary school with the only bike my family owned. My parents bought the bike when they got married in the 1960s for 170 yuan (about $28 at today’s exchange rate) – almost three months of their combined salaries. But they had no choice. A bike, a watch, a sewing machine and a wooden cabinet were then considered in China to be the four must-haves for newlywed couples.

NYIEThe bike, which was perfect for a man of my father’s height, was too big for a kid. I couldn’t sit on the seat. So I crouched over the pedals while holding the handlebars above me like they were monkey bars. Of course I fell frequently in the beginning. Every scratch on me or on the bike brought equal pain to my parents’ faces. But, again, they had no choice. All kids had to learn to ride a bike then and all of them had to fall from an oversized bike if they were to learn quickly.

In the following years, more bikes joined the original one in our storage. My mother got a medium-sized one for herself. And I got mine when I went to high school. The school was a specialized one that was far from home for almost all of the students. Every day thousands of bikes were parked in rows in an area the size of half a football field. If you forgot which row you parked your bike in, you could have a big problem at the end of the day. But eventually, everyone was able to find their own bikes, a special skill Chinese had in those days that astonished many foreigners.

That may be a lost skill today. During my recent trip to China, it was clear that many bikes seen on the streets in Beijing and other cities have the same designs. The bikes belong to the now ubiquitous bike sharing programs that barely existed during my previous visit in 2008.

Reporter Rong Xiaoqing in Chinatown, NY (Photo by Julius Motal for Voices of NY)

Reporter Rong Xiaoqing in Chinatown, NY (Photo by Julius Motal for Voices of NY)

As a resident of New York familiar with the Citi Bike program, bike sharing is not a foreign concept for me. Although it is too far and too dangerous for me to ride among rush hour cars to work in New York, I still like to bicycle in parks when the weather is nice.

What struck me, though, is that while New York and Beijing may have adopted the same traffic solution, they’ve reached this point from totally opposite directions — New York on an upward curve of the bike culture and Beijing a downward one.

New Yorkers may attribute the Citi Bike program to former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but they might also credit the late Ed Koch, who was mayor of New York from 1978-1989. On a trip to China in 1979, Koch was impressed by the thousands of bikes on the roads and the bike lanes that were secured by concrete dividers from the auto lanes. He replicated the Chinese bike lanes on 9th Avenue when he returned. But it proved an idea ahead of its time, and the divider was soon dismantled after many protests.

Bloomberg’s passion for environmental protection and his autocratic approach finally accelerated the move in favor of bike riding, and the city added more than 300 miles of bike lanes. Many of them were established by squeezing the auto lanes, a method the former mayor believed would alleviate the traffic congestion in the city.

At the same time, Beijing was facing burgeoning traffic problems. More and more Chinese were getting richer and giving up their bikes for cars – a symbol of a newly affluent modern life. Bike manufacturing in China fell from 78 million in 2003 to 60 million in 2013. And China surpassed the U.S. to become the biggest auto market in the world in 2009.

This put a great deal of pressure on the roads, designed at a time when there were many more bikes than cars. So, the authorities decided to squeeze the bike lanes to widen the auto lanes. The narrower bike lanes and demolished dividers were official recognition that bicycles were no longer the primary mode of transport for the Chinese. Now, the way was open for bike sharing programs (run by private companies but heavily sponsored by the government). The first such program in China was launched in 2008 in Hangzhou, where rides under an hour are free. The concept has spread to more than 100 cities.

My friends in China told me people are still buying bikes. But these are mainly high-end ones that easily cost 10,000 yuan (about $1,600). And they are used for recreation rather than commuting. Some environment-friendly people are calling for the revitalization of the bike culture. But judging by the ever worsening air pollution which makes outdoor activities a torture, and rapid urbanization which often lengthens commutes, that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon.

My old two-wheeler rests, battered and rusty, in the storage area of my parents’ old apartment, seemingly ready for the scrap heap. I’m a bit nostalgic for the life it evokes, and don’t want to see it thrown out. One day, it may be valuable – as an antique that carries memories of the glory of the long-lost Bike Kingdom.

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