Riding a bike is one of the best ways to get around big cities in China. I have my own large Giant bike purchased new for 800 RMB, and I love it. Fast and smooth, but just one gear. That’s fine for Shanghai. Many people ride rental bikes now like Mobikes or the yellow Ofo bike that I sometimes ride (the Mobikes are just too small for me, while the Ofo brand often allows the seat to be raised high enough to make it possible for a tall guy to ride, though not comfortably). I ride my bike most days when going to work in the Hongqiao area of Shanghai. It’s often faster than a taxi and much faster than a bus. You can join the pack of crazy motorcyclists who are not impeded by traffic jams, cutting in and out of obstacles while carefully observing all relevant laws — well, most of the laws of physics, I mean.
Bike riding is fast and convenient, but there are serious dangers. Not as dangerous as a motorcycle, where the higher speed means higher risk, but that higher risk includes collisions with you on your bike, and the results can be nasty. A friend of mine just badly crushed his hand in an accident with a motorcycle while riding his bike. He will need delicate surgery. Another friend was riding across a bridge when she hit a rock and fell from her bike, badly shattering her forearm. Painful surgery and months of recovery were required, but after a year has regained nearly all of her motion. But trust me, you don’t want an accident. Understanding the dangers is critical.
One of the biggest dangers comes from motorcylces and especially their nearly silent electric version, the ebike or electric bike. They can be zooming toward you from behind and you won’t hear them coming. They can be coming in from an angle from the back or side and you won’t hear them coming, unless you listen carefully. More important than listening is looking: you need to frequently make quick glances over your shoulders, especially over your left shoulder where faster approaching vehicles are likely to be coming, but also sometimes over your right shoulder.
Vision Trumps Everything
Peripheral vision is crucial. Frequent glances over your shoulders are vital. Understand that a vehicle may suddenly approach you from any side and any angle. A motorcycle or bike may dart out from an alley or from between parked cars on the side of the road. As you approach an intersection or driveway, someone may suddenly move into your path and it will usually seem that they never even looked your way before entering traffic. It’s amazing that some of them are still alive, but natural selection can be a slow and overly random process. I certainly have not seen any evidence that natural selection has been weeding out insane motorists and cyclists over the years in China. Evolution might work well for some species, but it seems rather inactive for species on the road. Never mind, just focus on not being the one who gets weeded out.
The key is being totally alert and aware of what’s happening in front of you, at your sides, and behind you. Listen carefully for horns, bells, rattling sounds, motors, snorts, cellphone conversations, or other indications of an approaching ghost rider. Watch for signs of motion between stationary cars. Anticipate taxi doors suddenly opening, usually on the right side. Note the protruding nose of a dog getting ready to make a dash for it. Anticipate the craziness of intersections where people may cross your path from all directions. Total alertness and attention is your key to survival.
Here’s the shocking news: for enhanced safety, I’ve given up wearing my helmet. Yes, terrible of me, right? But the statistics globally don’t show that bikers who wear helmets fare better than those who don’t, and in my Shanghai experience, I’ve realized that anything that hinders my peripheral vision or my ability to quickly look over my shoulders increases my risk. Avoiding collisions and falls is the first priority, much better than falling with a touch of added protection. Helmets limit my vision and slow me down when making rapid backward glances. Sayonora.
Alertness is also needed for coping with obstacles on the road. Manhole covers may be moved and the dangerous hole not well marked. Potholes may be large. Bricks or other objects can be in your path. With the rise of rental bikes clogging sidewalks, you will sometimes find a rental bike has been abandoned on the side of the road that partially blocks a bicycle lane. Dangerous! Be good citizen and move it out of the way, but do this by stopping gradually and with clear signaling of intent. No sudden moves!
Speaking of rental bikes, they add a lot of danger to the scene. Not just because they might be barriers, but because they have brought many new cyclists onto the roads who don’t know much about cycling and safety. And they are slow. They go at about 30-50% of my speed, in part because the wheels are small, and as a result they are constant barriers in front of me I need to weave around. But their riders often don’t ride very well, weaving back and forth as they go. So annoying. Increases the risk for everyone. Be cautious and carefully plan how you can avoid them and get past them as soon as possible. Further, bike renters will often step out onto the road with their bike without even looking at incoming traffic. So clueless. Anticipate their stupidity and be cautious when you see someone standing by a rental bike, possibly getting ready to create a pile-up on his or her first ride.
To Be Safe, Be Predictable
From my experience, a key safety tip is that you need to be predictable. Sudden turns, veering to a side, or a sudden stop can result in disaster. In China, car drivers and motorcyclists constantly forecast where others are going and then plan their sudden weaving in and out or other crazy maneuvers based on forecasting the routes of nearby vehicles. They expect you to just keep going and will time their move based on the forecast. But if you suddenly stop or turn without warning, you may end up where they are about to end up. Bang. Ugly. Notice this when you are in a taxi. Drivers are very aggressive and it all kind of works as long as people are somewhat predictable.
Hand signals aren’t common but are a good idea, especially for left turns against traffic. They aren’t going to stop for you in most cases to let you turn, but the signal lets others know what you are doing so they won’t crash into you.
When you stop, try to do it gradually. Recently I was riding along, thinking I was alone, and saw a person who was on the ground right after an accident between a bike and a motorcycle. I stopped quickly to help and then heard someone right behind me yell as he slammed the brakes of his electric motorcycle to avoid me. I was nearly taken down by that mistake. Be predictable. No sudden moves!
I hope this doesn’t deter you from riding a bike. There are dangers, but if you are alert and cautious, you can manage the risks and enjoy getting around town much faster than going on foot or with public transportation. But do realize that there are risks. Walking and public transportation have much lower risks, so weigh them as alternatives. Very few people have ever needed major surgery after a ride on the subway.