September 2, 2006

Shanghai by Bike

THE FIRST MORNING I WAS IN SHANGHAI, CHINA, I was awakened at 4:45 by an explosion in the alley just outside my hotel. Naturally, I ran to the window and looked out, filled with those keen fears common to travelers: Were there, like, terrorists here? In my research beforehand, had I overlooked some local guerrilla war?

The explosions kept coming--bam! bam! bam!--followed by a few smaller, sprightlier pops. In time, groggily, I remembered that the Chinese have a tradition of celebrating the launch of new businesses by setting off firecrackers.

I stood there listening, and eventually I saw something emerge from the billowing smoke: a man on a bicycle. He was riding slowly and unperturbed, his posture erect, as a small package rattled in his handlebar basket. A moment later, there were more cyclists: a guy talking on a cell phone, an old woman, and a workman in a hard hat with a cardboard box strapped to his rack. They all glided quietly out of the smoke through the rain-glistening streets.

The sight stirred a certain joy in my heart, for I had come to China with a manila folder crammed with bad news: In a country long celebrated as a kingdom of bicycles, this noble and practical form of transport was, it seemed, quickly becoming a relic, a victim of China's march toward prosperity. According to the news clips, China was racing to emulate the transportation schemes of the most ill-planned U.S. cities--Houston, say, or Los Angeles. It was spending $40 billion each year to construct what would be, in 2008, the world's most extensive interstate-highway system. The state-owned Shanghai Auto Industry Corporation, recently allied in a joint venture with General Motors, now employs 65,000 people.

In 2005, China became the world's second-largest car market, selling nearly 6 million vehicles. Suddenly it was littering its western high deserts with oil pumps and sucking oceans of crude out of Sudan. Meanwhile, Shanghai was cracking down on cyclists, barring them from select vehicle-heavy downtown streets and increasing by tenfold the fines it imposed on two-wheeled lawbreakers. Ridership was way down. While 60 percent of Shanghai's population commuted by bike in 1995, only 27 percent did so in 2000--and the city's power brokers seemed happy about the decline. As one former deputy mayor saw it, "The bicycle is just a reminder of past poverty."

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