Lessons from the Wildebeest Migration: staying safe on the Chinese roads

‘The difference between Chinese locals and the expats,’ my Chinese friend A explained, ‘is that Chinese locals take the bus and expats prefer their e-bikes.’  If only that were true, the roads in Hangzhou would be so much safer for everyone.

Hangzhou roads are wide, spacious with lots of room for cars, e-bikes, bicycles and pedestrians.  Surely the envy of many European cities battling with legacies pre-dating the advent of anything with a motor: narrow streets, cobbled lanes, dinky alleyways. Cities steeped in history, but lacking practicality in the 21st Century.  China has looked at the West and in its modern cities taken on board the sense of the American grid-system: straight roads, straight corners, easy to navigate flyovers.  The main arteries leading into town have generous lanes for cyclists and e-bike riders, often partitioned by chains or some kind of fencing for added safety.  And there are designated pavements for pedestrians…  With such infrastructure in place, you would expect a safe journey across town no matter what mode of travel you choose…

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Being a true expat by now, I did indeed purchase an e-bike on my return to China in March.   Not entirely sure about any permanent damage to my knee nor to my ability to pedal a pushbike, I thought it better to have some motorised backup available!!  I certainly did not fancy being at the mercy of a fickle bus service, standing in the cold, rain or suffocating summer heat or paying for taxis all the time.

After a few weeks of getting my bearings in the new area of town, using buses (which are actually very reliable) and leg power,  I ventured out on my e-bike.  I am not a natural and did not exactly take to riding an e-bike like a duck to water.  Suffice it to say that I learned the hard way that when going down a ramp on an e-bike, it is infinitely safer to turn off the engine so you do not simultaneously accelerate and apply the brakes…  Twice I hit a wall!! Luckily, I was walking down a ramp next to the bike and could let go..   I came off unscathed, and the bike???  A few more scratches and scrapes, but no real damage… It still works!!  I now avoid ramps…

I rode the e-bike painfully slowly at first, carefully surveying my opponents on the road.  Whereas near my previous flat on the outskirts of Hangzhou, two e-bikes or bicycles  would have made a crowd, near the centre of town there were loads of them…  all occupied by the Chinese…   And although I had sampled Chinese road-user habits before, the experience paled in comparison to dealing with the hordes of e-bikes, cyclists and pedestrians invading the space designated to them…  To complicate matters further, in the last few months the country has been gripped by a bicycle-sharing epidemic. This may well sound like a great initiative, but in China ‘good’ ideas are copied over and over, ad infinitum…  Since my return to China, pavements have been cluttered with an oversupply of bicycles in all shades and hues, and the roads have been heaving with cyclists lacking confidence and speed.

Not feeling too brave on the e-bike, I used to hang back, linger behind the mob, give way to the impatient and more audacious.  I even thought it wise to wait for traffic lights to turn green…  I soon found out that following the throng, disregarding Western notions of road safety, was the much wiser and sensible way to avoid being hit by fellow road users.  A green light certainly does not guarantee a risk-free passage across a junction!!  Whilst e-bikes and bicycles attempt to go straight, cars turning right force their way through, not waiting for a space and coercing isolated E-bikes and bicycles  to weave and dodge around them.  So it makes sense to jump the lights and use those precious seconds to have a head start and as a mass of metal and bodies get out of harm’s way.  Until you reach the other side where cars, e-bikes and bicycles plough in from the right  without so much as a glance to check whether it is safe to do so, no matter the light is green for me and not for them.  It’s a bit like the wildebeest migration: the most likely to end up as crocodile feed are those who head into the river first, or those who lag behind and are no longer protected by the body of the herd…

Even going straight along the cycle path is fraught with danger, especially from riders in slow motion… You may be fooled into thinking that they are the  vigilant ones looking out for other road users… but more likely than not, their eyes will be glued to their phones and their minds immersed in the digital world of Wechat, their ears filled with heated conversations or the latest hits….  They are the ones I approach with extra caution because they are probably totally oblivious of their surroundings or any other traffic.   Add to this that just at the point where it seems possible to overtake those ones who would even fail to beat a snail in a race, a  lonely cyclist or e-biker comes hurtling from the opposite direction, scattering everyone out of his way…

And of course, let’s not forget the pedestrians meandering at leisure between e-bikes and bicycles…  City and road planners certainly had their interests at heart when designing road lay-outs.  Wide pavements sheltered by leafy  trees and with ample room for pushchairs…  Only, in busy areas around metro stations, shopping malls and parks such strips of free space for pedestrians have been turned into dumping grounds for e-bikes and shared bicycles because the planners overlooked or underestimated the need for parking provision…  And careless ‘shared-bicycle’ users discard their wheels just about anywhere they see fit and leave the police to deal with clearing the avalanche of metal. Neither the bicycle users, nor the rental companies are held to account. On the outskirts of Hangzhou, vast swathes of derelict land have been turned into bicycle graveyards as the companies who own them have no interest in claiming them back: the bicycles have been paid for through the deposits from the users… It is probably cheaper to buy new stock than paying any fines.

It seems that in the haste of turning Chinese cities into ‘modern’ metropolises, its citizens have been left behind and attitudes have not kept pace.   Maybe it is a lot easier to change  the infrastructure of a city than the ingrained habits of a population…  China certainly has traffic rules and regulations, but they are invariably ignored by the majority of the Chinese and the traffic police seem powerless to do anything about it.

I still use my e-bike, in emergencies only.  I rather ride a bicycle, at least I can manage the brakes and I get exercise to boot!!  But I feel neither confident nor safe on the roads here and watch every other Chinese road user like a hawk, always expecting the unexpected and hands ready  for an emergency stop…

If only my friend had been right that the Chinese prefer the buses and e-bikes are the reserve of the expat community…

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Lessons from the Wildebeest Migration: staying safe on the Chinese roads

  1. Alison and Don

    It sounds terrifying. Nothing would get me on even a bicycle, let alone any kind of motorised vehicle there. It sounds like Vietnam, and India, where we left all the driving to experienced locals.
    Alison

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    Reply
  2. lievelee Post author

    All things considered buses and taxis are the safest options but sometimes it is necessary to get to places under your own steam… Buses don’t always run after 8 or 9 pm and using taxis all the time quickly adds up. On the upside, at least in the evening there is less traffic on the roads, so this makes using the e-bike easier.. as long as I am constantly on the look-out for other e-bikes going against the traffic WITHOUT turning on their headlights… It’s definitely a challenge!!

    Lieve

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