In Beijing the bicycles don't stop for red lights. I had pretty much figured this out for myself by my second day on a rented 15-speed mountain bike. But it was Lu Xianfang who taught me how to weave my way across eight lanes of traffic that had the green light, and probably thought it had the right of way.
Xianfang, a 21-year-old business and management student, had pedaled alongside and grabbed me a half-hour earlier as I was poring over a map trying to reconstruct the short cut I had taken to get off a six-lane (in each direction) freeway. Her offer: Let her practice her English on me and she would guide me to the Empress Dowager Cixi's Summer Palace on the northwest edge of the city.
In Beijing, biking is a great way to experience the city from the ground up.
To get there, we had to cross Chengfu Lu Dongxing road -- four lanes plus a bike lane in each direction. I stopped and put a foot down to wait for the green light. Silly me. Xianfang (pronounced Shen-Fong) moved ahead to the edge of the first lane of cross traffic and signaled me with a palm-down wave to join her. Seeing a gap, she pushed through to the next lane, braked to a near standstill, then pumped her way across another lane. After a couple more lanes I began to see the gaps that seemed so clear to her. And then it was time to look in the other direction and work our way across the traffic coming from our left.
This seems to be the strategy to biking in Beijing: Traffic on city streets does not move very fast. Cars almost always stop for red lights. Just about nobody else does. There seems to be almost a rule of nature that all spaces must be filled. And if the cars going in one direction won't fill them, then the bicycles and pedestrians moving across their path will. Some code of informal order prevents bicycles and cars from occupying the same space at the same time.
Size definitely matters; buses and trucks generally expect to get the right of way. But there also seems to be an aspect of showing respect to the smaller guys. If you can catch a driver's eye and you're not going to make him lose his rhythm -- and, perhaps, face -- by jamming on his brakes, then he'll usually let you shoot across his bow.
Psychologists who study traffic -- we were in Beijing so my wife could attend an international psychology conference -- say that a society's sense of personal space governs traffic patterns. Chinese generally live closer together than Westerners and feel comfortable packing their cars and bikes in tighter.
The bike lanes themselves are a different kind of chaos. They are almost always wide enough for cars to fit into. So they do. Sometimes they nip into the bike lane because all of the vehicle lanes are slowing. Sometimes the drivers pull over and park to make a cell phone call. The bicycle lane is also the perfect place for taxis and buses -- often traveling in pairs -- to pick up and discharge passengers. And the bikes, electric and gas-powered motorbikes, delivery tricycles and pedicabs travel in both directions on each side of the street. Most streets are cambered enough so that any decent rain flows off to the edges, often causing the bike lanes to become minor canals. Teams of sweepers with twig brooms move along in unison, sweeping the water away and often sending up waves that force you to pull your feet off the pedals as you coast through.
Beijing bicyclists also pedal differently from their Western counterparts. They set their seats a bit lower, lean almost backward and pedal with the arches, or even the heels, rather than the balls of their feet, which splays their knees out on the upstroke. Many of them have long commutes or heavy loads to carry, and they are most likely in it for the long haul rather than a short spin.
So why bike in Beijing? Because once you get the traffic rhythm it feels safe, despite occasional adrenaline rushes. The city is pretty flat, so pedaling is not going to wear you out quickly. And while you have to eat a few diesel fumes, Beijing's pollution is so bad that even the air conditioning in taxis often can't keep it out entirely. You also breathe in the good cooking smells -- spices from restaurants, charcoal and sizzling meat from little shish kebab stands -- that you miss when sealed in a car.
In addition, you receive a lot of sometimes shy smiles from children riding on the backs of bicycles and their parents. You can turn off main streets into the hutong (alleyways) that start off narrow, then branch down still narrower. The walled-in compounds -- all facing south for good feng shui -- go as far back as the 13th century. The hutong have become an endangered species, however, as Beijing's pre-Olympics road-widening and construction boom turns more and more of them into broken piles of ancient brick waiting to be hauled away.