I got a bike at the beginning of January. That’s it up there, chillin on its first day home, brand new shiny racecar-red and complete with a basket that, due to the delightful oversight of a cashier, came for free. I hadn’t seriously considered getting a bike before the new year, having witnessed the incomprehensible mess is that Shanghai traffic, but the decision came about rather suddenly from a combination of several events: 1) me experiencing my first payday since March 2009; 2) Sean offering to subsidize half the cost of a bike; and 3) me staring at my thighs and deciding that something must be done about them, pronto.
Oh, and I guess 4) discovering this beauty at Decathlon (a French-owned sports “megastore”), carrying a sign that read “ready to ride”. How could one resist?
Since a lot of people here bike (although cars and motorbikes really dominate now), this purchase should have brought me one step closer to fitting into Chinese society. However, because my bike is neither squeaky nor rusted, and because I’m part of the 0.001% of cyclists who wear a helmet, my foreignness is made all the more apparent while I am cycling.
But that is of little consequence. I realized soon after buying the bike that this meant I’d have to overcome my fear of the streets, which are heart-stopping and prayer/profanity-inducing enough when traversing a sidewalk on my own two feet. How would I, an inexperienced city cyclist, survive on an actual road on wheels that don’t balance when stationary and can’t reverse at will (e.g. to avoid getting hit by a bus)? While I’ve heard that the Chinese street isn’t even that bad compared with somewhere like Ho Chi Minh city, it is still a seemingly lawless realm where taxis will make u-turns on a highway or suddenly go into reverse on a big road (while assuring you there’s no traffic behind), cars will make both left and right turns on a red light, and motorbikes spout forth from all angles like rabid beasts regardless of right of way or direction of traffic. If you get hit as a pedestrian, you could be cursed at for not checking for traffic coming from a direction that traffic shouldn’t be coming from.
While Sean is convinced that biking is actually less scary than walking around, my first three rides with him suggested otherwise. Sharing a space with honking motorcyclists is one thing, brushing shoulders with cement mixers and trucks with rocks tumbling out (no joke) is another. At various points during these rides, I found myself dropping the f-bomb every few meters– but at least I had Sean with me to make judgments of when it was okay to cross and how far out to veer into the car lane, and I knew that if I followed him and said a prayer at the intersection, I would probably end up in one piece on the other side.
Today marked my first ride out by myself: an hour-long round-trip to & from my student’s house, and a shorter trip out to Sean’s school to meet him on his Sunday afternoon break. I began a little nervous, but it turned out to be fun, liberating. I know I’m making this more dramatic than it needs to be, and you might be thinking “what’s the big deal?”, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that that was exactly what I realized. It’s not such a terrifying thing, once you get used to it.
As a pedestrian, you’re at the bottom of the food chain: you’re slow, small, a little scared. The guys on wheels won’t think twice about passing you, intercepting you, coming within centimeters of your soft, harmless body. Going about on foot, all I can think about is how insane these things on wheels are and that the sole reason for their existence must surely be to maim and kill. But on a bike, you’re a little higher up: faster, larger, more visible. Sure, you’re still likely prey for the bigger beasts, but if you’re travelling as one within a pack (and there are almost always other cyclists around), you’re probably safe. On a bike, it becomes clearer that there exists some order amid the chaos, an almost miraculous interaction between the hundreds of self-centered, manic vehicles coming together at any given intersection. It an unspoken system albeit not bound by law or common courtesy.
And this system cannot but exist, because the reality is that the design of many of Shanghai’s streets is such that it is simply impossible, unwise, or inefficient to follow such laws as:
It all seems to work–except, I guess, when it doesn’t. But, knock on wood, I’ve seen fewer traffic accidents than I would expect to see in a place like this…
All this is to say, I am very happy that I got a bike. While I can’t see myself doing long, adventurous bike trips anytime soon, I do see myself little by little, street by street, taking advantage and control of this new way to see and experience the city. It looks nice, rides smooth, it’s good for the environment and good for my thighs. What more can one ask for, really?