Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Press and Roll

There are bicycles everywhere in China. In Hong Kong, there were more gas powered motorbikes. In Shanghai there are more electric scooters. The scooters are fast, energy efficient, and quiet. All two wheeled vehicles will henceforth in this post be referred to as bikes.

There are different kinds of scooters. They can be purchased from Carrefour, local shops, and the classifieds. The sizes range from large, heavy, fast bikes, to the small light-weight frames that can be pedaled or powered. In the States we call the pedal/engine combo ones whizzers, I am not sure what they are called here.

The first week we arrived I bought a used bike from a Foreign Service Officer departing Post. It is bigger than I want, with a more powerful engine. The thing is so heavy that I can’t lift it up onto the more supportive stand, so it always rests on the side kickstand. It plugs into any outlet and charges in about four hours. The charge lasts long enough for about four or five trips around town. The price and situation were right, so what could go wrong?

This bike maxes out at 50 km/hr. No gears, it is fairly mindless. The bike is sensitive to even the smallest shifts in balance and weight. When the kids get into a fight on the back we swerve all over the road and I start shouting at them to knock it off. Not that you can ever imagine me shouting at my darling children. It is big enough to carry the three of us, but small enough to maneuver to school and local errands.

I am still not used to traffic here, but I am starting to understand the patterns of behavior. There is a hierarchy: buses- taxis- cars- diesel/gas bikes- electric scooters- whizzers- bicycles- pedestrians- rickshaws. Like any
civilized country, traffic moves on the right. Major intersection have lights. Minor intersections have signs. Right turn has the right-of-way; this is a little different.

Bikes follow both the car and pedestrian laws leading to all kinds of crazy. There are usually dedicated lanes on either side of the road. Without those lanes bikes stay to the right fighting for space with taxis. Bikes move in both directions and are expected to cross at cross-walks. Bikes can travel in any direction in the bike lane or on the sidewalk. During the day, bikes follow pedestrian rules and tend to go through intersections when there is a break in traffic. Sometimes there are signs directing bikes to the sidewalk, other times policemen pull over bikes on the sidewalk. That one is a little tricky to figure out.

The intersections are well designed here in the big city. The lights have timers, a green timer and a red timer! You always know how long you will have to wait to cross or how quickly to hit the intersection to get through in time. Not everyone follows the rules. It all fell into place the day I figured out that our microwave is color coded red for start and green for stop. As a side note, those, and the 15 second and 30 second quick buttons, are still the only buttons I can read. 

This makes for several different flows of traffic and usually one or two counter flows. When turning left it is important to keep all of this in mind as you use the crosswalk to cross four lanes of car traffic, two of bike traffic, and watch for the buses that do not slow as they bank right. While simultaneously trying not to run over the old man directly in front of you straddling his bicycle as he walks it across the street.

The morning commute is difficult. If we get a late start (read: if someone, ah hem, you know who, is dawdling again) we hit traffic and a different set of rules. When the light changes a man in a yellow jacket steps into the bike lane and puts out a flag. The bikes begin to gather waiting for the flag to go up. There could be 15-20 of us lined up, jockeying for position. Flag goes up and everyone is off. The diesel engines are faster and wider, pushing through to the front. I have a big bike with 5 batteries, so I usually go for the void on the side and pass the whizzers. The kids think this is great fun and they count the number of bikes we pass. This morning we moved from the third row to second place. Not bad.

Initially, the kids cried because we didn’t pay for the school bus service. They have found a whole new level of coolness when they mount the big, black bike in front of their school mates. Yup, all kinds of cool. 

Having dumped a much bigger bike riding through one of the snow and ice storms in Virginia this past winter, not one of my better ideas, I was hesitant to ride this little scooter. Motivation came in the form of travelers belly. Not having the energy to walk, but needing to replenish the household stock of Gatorade, I finally got back up on the horse and rode down to the corner market.

I find the scooter to be difficult to ride. A scooter is like sitting on a chair and rocking from side to side. Try it now, try to sit up tall in a chair and tilt on the right two legs then shift to the left two legs. First, you can’t sit up tall, because we all want to lounge back and put our legs out straight. See, it just isn’t natural. Motorcycles and horses, even bicycles are easy because my legs go around them, there is more balance and control. Hips and back are better aligned. There is security and even power in having your legs around your mount.

We are starting to look like natives, albeit blond and curly haired. We have stacked an amazing number of grocery bags onto the bike. Nothing compared to the guy with 20 CPU’s strapped to his or the guy who delivers water bottles, but we are respectfully overloaded.

The dawdler and I did a quick grocery run. But it is so hard to just buy one thing. For those of you used to the State-side packaging, the big white box is a 12 pack of boxed milk. 
I have been pulled over for riding on the sidewalk on the wrong block. Thankfully, my last post was in Africa, so getting pulled over in China was painless in comparison. No wagging guns, no threats of murder or demands for money or even demands for the half finished soda on the passenger seat. Nope, just a firm talking to. And a nod in return as I totally disregarded everything the policeman said. With one ear bud in listening to audio books and one ear listening to the sounds of the street, I do my daily errands. Yeah, I am badass.

No comments: