To Each According to his Aggressivity

I bought a bicycle yesterday (275 Yuan, divide that by 8 for dollars); granted a simple model not even with gears. But, I think robust, serviceable and typical of those on the streets. I took it on my maiden voyage to the University today – about 25 min – I can’t tell you exactly how far it is; one of these days I’ll take the GPS along and give an accurate count. A little further, in the opposite direction (south), to get to the “old campus”, and not far beyond that the north shore of lovely West Lake. Bicycling is the best way of maneuvering in this big, but compact city. Though, statistically speaking, the risk factor reduction bicycling may have on coronary infarct is probably more than offset by the risk of getting creamed by a Chinese madman-driver, but I try not to think of it that way.

Chinese driving style is beyond my power of description. Rules of the road, as one would read them in the driver’s license manual, would sound familiar to Americans. It’s the interpretation that bewilders. (Of course, one could say much the say about the Chinese Constitution.) I offer an historical insight: there was a time not long ago when all China moved by bicycle. Light, slow and deftly maneuverable, there seemed little point in regimented rules of use. Thanks to Deng Xiaoping’s multi-colored cats, there is now a substantial middle class — and how else to recognize middle-classedness than by automobile ownership? Problem is, they drive their big, black Buicks (apparently not the granny car you may consider it to be, but a real status symbol) according to the principles learned as teenagers on bicycles. In a nutshell, the only apparent rule to Chinese traffic, human or engine powered, is “the right of way is mine”. I’ll admit there is a certain consistency to it, but it does keep one on one’s mettle, and encourages a strong element of chicken-bravado.

Thankfully, bicycle lanes are ubiquitous, and well segregated from motor traffic. Except when a motorist would really like to stop at that store just there, or would like to spare the problem of turning right out of his housing complex on a divided highway, when he really wants to go left. No problem! Just drive a couple blocks the wrong way down the bicycle lane to the next intersection, and then insert yourself into the stream of motor traffic.

Superimposed on this is the complication of e-bicycles. Technically interesting, these are bicycle-like (ranging upwards in size to motor-scooterlike) vehicles, powered by battery. Cool; green. These share the bike-lanes, but at twice the speed and of dubious braking capacity (generally supplemented by shoe-sole to pavement). I like to think the incessant beep-beep-beep approaching from the rear is just a friendly reminder that “I’m approaching, and you may not hear my silent, electric motor” — that’s the basis of my behavioral response, anyway. Could it be that the inveterately polite Chinese really mean “get the fuck out of my way?”

Yet another complication are the frequent spring rains — raining all day today, alternating light and heavy, but never quite stopping. And so I was induced to learn the fine art of riding bicycle with umbrella held high. It’s an effective method. Though negotiating China’s bicycle lanes with half the braking power and half the steering control, doesn’t seem prudent to me, all the more so because the rest of the crowd, operating under the same handicap, doesn’t seem phased by conditions at all. One has to credit them that they are not just fair-weather bicyclists. But I think I will invest in a rain cape.

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