In the midst of their near-overnight metamorphosis, cities in China are struggling to make sense of the tug-of-war between old and new ways of living. Increasingly, the experience of exploring these metropolises by bicycle is deeply emblematic of the older generation's losing battle.
Even just a few years ago, as Stevenson puts it, "Beijing was delightful by bike." But facing cultural pressures for status symbols and luxury, Chinese youth have lost their taste for the humble, utilitarian two-wheeler: "With a single gear and heavy steel frame, the [national standard model] is ideal for long rides on flat city streets. At a cost of US $180, it is the bike bargain of the world. Nevertheless, the dream for younger Chinese is a Honda scooter."
Riding a bicycle in Beijing still comes with certain privileges – dedicated lanes, exclusive rights-of-way, special parking spaces at train stations, and of course the convenience of being able to percolate through gridlocked traffic. But in an environment of ever more unenforceable traffic, cars and scooters encroach further and further on cyclists' territory, making cycling more nerve-wracking than delightful. Stevenson describes his observations during a recent tour through the capital:
"After a while, I had my eyes attuned to the demographics of bike riders. They tended to be school kids or the elderly. From this blacktop survey, I judged that middle-aged or prosperous Beijingers have little appetite for riding. Most were moving around on scooters, the kind that have clogged many Asian cities."