There’s a place for laws and there’s a place where order just won’t work. Laws are pretty much necessary for some sort of order to be had between cyclists and motorists in Cape Town. The fight is relentless between these two factions and something is needed for people to lean back on and point fingers with. The laws no doubt keep some semblance of order – or at least give people an awareness that wasn’t there before.
In Beijing things are different. Here, lawlessness allows freedom – and surprisingly, respect. Bicycles aren’t seen as a nuisance or a hobby. They’re a way of transport – a cheaper and sometimes more convenient way of getting from point A to B. Because of this you don’t really see the high-end level of bikes like in SA. It’s not worth it to buy a crazy expensive bike merely for transport, especially if you’re going to lock it up somewhere exposed to the elements and thievy fingers. Though once in a while you will spot the likes of a Devinci Wilson being wheeled into a bike shop. But that’s only when you happen across a decent shop that will have a spare Saint derailleur hanging about.
You usually ride your bike to the subway and jump on to get to the further reaches of the city, using your wheels to get you the shorter distances. Last I checked, Beijing is almost 4 times the size of Joburg in landmass. Add in that there are about 22-odd million people and you can get a small idea of what it’s like using the roads.
Can you imagine having eight Specialized Epics stolen, or even just two Santa Cruz’s? I’ve had one Santa taken from me and that was heart breaking enough! Some people say that if you can’t consider yourself a local in Beijing until you have had at least eight bikes stolen. That’s mad, until you see the level of bikes that are here. I am doing a review of my first Beijing bike soon enough, so stay tuned for that. A little spoiler perhaps: she’s a beaut!
It’s almost an amazing feat of endurance. Most of what you see is rusted, decrepit and squeakier than a mouse being beaten. But they work. Day in and day out they provide surprisingly reliable transport. Mind you, there are road-side repair shops everywhere. Like the hard-arse lady down the road from me, these mechanics can fix anything bike and do it crazy cheap.
I find it really strange that in a place where the law basically runs your life, where the government is so intrusive into the lives of its people, that there can be such a level of seeming chaos on the roads. This seems like something that has been left behind from the old days, before the reform and Cultural Revolution that changed the landscape of what can be considered Chinese culture.
Running a red robot is common practice. If there’s no one coming, then go. Simple stuff. If there is someone coming, then sometimes it’s a matter of go quickly. They’re not going to run you over, and if they get close (which they often do) then just hope for the best. I’ve missed cars by centimetres and other bikes going the wrong way down the road by just as much. It’s crazy to think that no one wears helmets either. The most I’ve seen in a day is maybe 3, and those are usually people wearing full lycra for some reason.
There’s dedicated bike lanes or even whole sides of road separated by an island. These are used by cyclists, bikers, tuk-tuks, and taxis when it suits their route. They’re supposed to be one-ways, but no one obeys this. It’s just a matter of ringing your bell a few times and using eye contact to get an idea of which side you’re going to pass on.
There are no real hard feelings either. If you hear someone hooting, that’s just part of the game. It’s not an anger issue so much as something to let you know that they are there. Just like the bell on my bike, the hooter is used as a sort of safety measure so the random pedestrian or cyclist won’t stray into the road and be a semi-permanent part of your car.
The chaos is orderly. Does that make sense? Whether it does or doesn’t matter. I have yet to see an accident in the city and have never heard of one with bikes. It does make a big difference that bikes were used extensively before cars came this side. So people have much more respect for them and know what they’re all about.
I think maybe Cape Town – and perhaps the rest of SA – could take a leaf out of Beijing’s biking book. Except for the no helmets habit. That’s just silly.