Chinese transportation – Revisited

Life has been in overdrive here the past 2 weeks.  During this time I have found my mind wandering more and more, which is not good during working hours mind you.  As I was on the way back from a client’s briefing for a developing website/CD project I began to remember some of the questions I was asked and other things I have been meaning to discuss.  So I will try to address them here and now, unless I have forgotten them again, if so please forgive my creeping senility.  

Beijing, as any Chinese city has many bicycles.  China’s population is estimated at 1.313 billion people, according to the CIA world fact book, means there will be a lot of bikes but not more then 2 billion.  Here are my estimates from observations on China’s personal transportation means.  Of the estimated 938,399,604 male and female Chinese, between the ages of 15 and 64 (79% of the population), minus the average 5% estimates for an unemployable population, (physically or mentally handicapped or permanently injured), we are left with around 891,479,624 people able to utilize any form of transportation.  China’s average 2004 annual salary is $2,400 a year, according to Chinese sources.  

Now this means some people make more and some make less, so knowing the prices of automobiles and motorcycles and mopeds are not too much less then in the states average entry level cars are $8,000 to 16,000 in 2004.  With estimated 100 million households earning over $7,500 a year this means only a small percentage of the population will own a car, and mostly in cities where most of the wealth and under half the population resides.  Bicycle prices here average around $35 to $65 for an average bike.  Electric and LPG bicycles and mopeds cost between $200 to $600, making them much more practical to lower income families and individuals, which there are far more of.  Parking is also an issue, parking costs in Shanghai are high, nearly $200 a month down town and $150 to $300 a month in residences.  Bicycle pricing is much more reasonable at about $20 a month in each location; mopeds are only a little more then bikes.  So with this in mind there should be roughly a ratio of 10% cars (mostly in the cities), 25% mopeds/motorcycles/electric bikes, and 65% bicycles for those who have transportation.  

There are a large number of people who utilize public transportation systems (more on this later).  I would estimate about 6-8% of people in urban areas utilize busses, trains, subways, taxis, etc.  With math as our major tool here we can conclude that: of the 891,479,624 people able, physically and economically, to own transportation minus 7% take public transportation options – 62,403,574, leaves us with 829,076,050 people owning transportation.  Thus we have 10% have an automobile – 82,907,605, 25% with 2 wheel motorized modes of transport – 207,269,113, and finally the 65% with bicycles leaves 538,899,433 bikes… nearly twice our national population.  40 years ago it was said China had a bike for every man woman and child, so taking this into account (and having seen many bikes over 20 years old myself) this estimate is probably off by a few million.  I am also omitting rickshaws and work trikes, large 3 wheeled bikes with pickup truck style beds on the backs capable of hauling about 1/2 tons worth of cargo!

The above figures show a staggering ripple effect for industries in China.  There are tires, seats, bells, chains, spokes, ball bearings, grease and oil, paint, chrome, rubber, innertubes, baskets, and other accessories manufacturers and factories churning out thousands of replacement parts each year just to maintain these enormous fleets.  Chinese bikes differ from what we know in a few key areas.  

1 is safety.  Reflectors are not standard equipment here.  There are few bikes with front and back reflectors much less wheel and peddle reflectors.  Helmets are not required, chain guards are much better, but they are usually taken off.  Brakes are either drum or caliper on rim type many mountain bikes we know have (but this is very rare as most are drum).  All bikes allow for the user to peddle backwards in order to facilitate easy mount and dismount in any attire.  

2 is design.  Bicycle design here is stuck in the 1950’s classis style.  There are modern bike and even 12 speeds and mountain bikes but these are rare and targets for theft, so people opt for boring plane jane designs.  I have noticed there are not distinct men’s and women’s designs here; all seem to be women’s configuration (as to allow easy mounting and dismounting I guess).  Kick stands too are very different.  All Chinese bikes have either a rear wheel kickstand or a rear wheel bike stand, unlike our models that have the kickstands near the center support structures.  ** – Added 7/28/06 – I forgot to mention this one part… Every bike here has fenders, BIG fenders and also the flat metal carring rack on the back. **

3 is complexity.  While this is mainly a design point I separated it because it is more then just a design point here.  These bikes are very simple and easy to work on, making a very lucrative side market for wheel maintenance and drive train maintenance ‘shops’ spring up on almost every street corner.  Have a blow out?  No problem, with a short walk you can find a person who will patch or replace (if they have the part) your innertube or tire to allow you to get on the road again soon.  Chain breaks, again same thing.  Dirt in the handlebar structure or faulty ball bearings making it hard to turn, or keep straight?  Again same deal.  Only thing I have not found is good break place (notice my previous complaints about noise and need for ear plugs).  These bikes are so simple they seldom need repair and when they do it is always easy to obtain and fast turn around time.  Lack of complex gears, breaks, chains, and suspensions allow for a much more durable (yet less efficient) fleet.

What about the motorized 2 wheel transport?  I do not want to get too long winded here so it breaks down like this.  Much of the same as above with the following notes.  The government is promoting environmentally friendly machines, so factories churning our electric and liquid propane gas machines get huge tax breaks meaning there are many more of them on the road because the costs are about the same for conventional competitors.  Again the same differences as above apply here too.  Lighting is for vanity, not safety and most travel with the lights off at night.  Turn signals and break lights seldom work.  Breaks squeak like you would not believe, and drivers have MP3 players to cut the noise levels out.  These machines also are simple and repair shops are plentiful.  They are faster the bikes and cars because they can travel in both lanes as need arise and have no real laws they have to follow.  They may be loud and over populated but offer a much more realistic option to the average Chinese and are therefore good for China, but bad for the environment due to their popularity and waste products and by-products.

In conclusion, the number if bikes in China is unknown, but it is possible to be more then the population as each store here in Shanghai will keep an inventory of around 100 each… and there are many many bike stores here!  In this culture bikes are intertwined much the same way cars are in ours.  Racing bikes is looked on as silly as bikes are not known for anything outer then basic dependable transportation, sorry I haven’t seen any BMX style bikes here tricked out with pegs or things for pulling of stunts with.  With rough roads, theft, parking issues, bad air, and long distances between towns, bike racing may be hard to bring into the culture, but it also offers some of the best opportunities to establish such a series of events.  As with most things here, observation is much more of the norm then participation.  People are only curious enough to watch so any thing new to China will have to have a large foreigner population at first until enough interest is sparked for the locals to join in, like F-1 racing, baseball, sailing, extreme sports, etc.  If bike racing takes hold you will see an explosion of modern bike sales here as the Chinese are quick to pick up on anything popular and prove to everyone around them they are just as modern as anyone else (as evident by the number of iPods, MP3, and MP4 players you see on the street every day).

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One Response to Chinese transportation – Revisited

  1. Unknown says:

    I just found your articles about China, and enjoy them immensely. I admire you for what your move to China. What you are doing by relaying this type of information is very helpful to both the Chinese and Americans. Would be nice if you wee writing for various newspapers here. I have always been very interested in the chinese people. I have studied China for many years, and some of that time was what my occupation required. I wish you and your family the very best, and I will continue reading your articles. Because of my understanding the Chinese I am surprised that you are able to write while there. Take care
     
        Tom Burke    Dewey, AZ

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