Smarter Than Car
Silently flowing through the streets and lanes of China’s cities, an ephemeral army of cyclists pedal their bicycles and tricycles to earn a living.
These men and women work hard, moving heavy loads in all kinds of weather conditions to make deliveries, sell products and services, find and collect recyclables, move furniture and other goods, and clean up the streets. They are the survivors of the fast-eroding Kingdom of the Bicycle.
The fact that motor vehicles were hard to come by before the economic reforms meant that cycle power prevailed in China. Cycling was used for many functions and jobs that otherwise would have been motorized. However, the use of pedal power for jobs was largely confined to official functions since labor controls were strict and even street vendors and other informal workers had a hard time avoiding sanctions. In terms of bicycle ownership, up to the mid-1970s most Chinese were not earning enough to purchase a bicycle, even when there were bikes available.
The Golden Age of cycling in China was the 1980s. Economic and market reforms had greatly improved the purchasing power of the average Chinese and industrial modernization allowed production to boom. However, Chinese were not wealthy enough to afford cars or other motorized transport and so the bicycle was the most popular vehicle. This was when individual and private use of bicycles floured along with cycling for livelihoods and trades. Foreigners reported extensively on the “floods” of cyclists in Chinese cities in the 1980s.
Despite the significant decline in bicycle ridership in China since the 1980s, bicycles are still ubiquitous in cities. While bicycles are primarily used for commuting, shopping and other utilitarian purposes, there are also a bewildering variety of cycle-based livelihoods and trades that have survived, many of which make use of customized tricycles. Cycling for leisure, health, sport and entertainment is increasing rapidly. But the question remains as to whether the cycling livelihoods of China can survive the changes in bicycle culture, urban fabric, technology and cost of living.