Riding a bike in China and Australia

Shanghai 1992 December
shanghai 1992

Way back in 1992 I arrived in China at Shanghai airport. There were many bikes back then in Shanghai, though these days there are less. These days they have a working public transport system and underground rail lines. Back then they didn’t. But I did not really hit bike culture in China until I arrived a few days later in Nanjing. I had read what to do in my lonely planet. But nothing had ever prepared me. I stood by the road side stupefied. How was I going to get across? There was a never ending stream of bikes about 10 wide going past at a moderate pace. Even a racing peloton would look completely insignificant. I stood there for a while. Luckily a man carrying a container not unlike an arrow quiver, but filled with musical instruments, crossed the road. I watched. But still it was really hard.

Instructions: Walk across the road at 45 degrees. It does not matter if you walk with or against the stream. Do not stop. Do not change direction. Be clearly predicable and the bikes will ride around you.

shanghai 2007

So I headed off into this pack of cyclists at 45 degrees against the flow so I could see them comment, wondering when I would be hit. A few moments later I walked out the other side. I had not been hit. No bicycle even looked like hitting me. No one swerved. No one looked that what I was doing was anything out of the unusual. On the other hand, I felt I had cheated death. I was a little shaken. But in time I came to be completely comfortable with this situation.

single speed

Fast forward a few weeks. We were in Kunming. Barbara and I hired bikes to go up to the mountains. They were the old trusty grey communist era machines with single speed gearing. I have a photo here of one taken 17 years later in Yangshuo. Ours did not have the basket or pannier rack. As we headed out of town to go up the mountain, we had to ride through a market. It was packed with people buying food. I just headed slowly into the crowd. No one seemed to move. I never veered or changed direction. I just rode through the mass of people. It was like my first time in Nanjing, but this time I was on the bike. I rode out the other side. No one reacted. No one thought it was unusual. No one even seemed to notice me.  I never looked like hitting anyone. I never had to swerve or stop. Barbara walked through. She could not just ride into the mass of people.

speeding cyclist

Fast forward again to 2007. Again I am in China. I am embarrassed in Beijing and the other places. I feel sorry for the Chinese bike riders. I am with a group of western people from Australia and North America. They have no idea. I watch the riders ride up behind them. They are completely unaware of the existence of the bike. If you ride up behind a local, they hear you coming and move out of the way. They also walk on one side of the path or the other. The western people have different habits. They walk in the middle of the path. They take up all the available space and leave none for others. They do not react to the noise of the bike and do not move out of the way. Sometimes I wanted to shout at them for their rudeness. But I knew that they come from an environment where this is normal behaviour. They simply do not know.


Back in Yangshuo, I do basically the same ride in 2007 as I had done in 1993. But now they have cars and trucks. If you ever look at the local Chinese drive you will be despondent. But as soon as I am on the bike I understand the problem. I fit in. The road is obeying my road rules. You see the drivers of the cars and truck obey the road rules they learned as bicycle riders and drivers of horse and cart wagons. But this is a problem Cars and trucks go faster.

On the bike the Chinese still ride at speeds that are very slow. I think that this is partly cultural, they have always ridden slowly. But also it is technique leave the seats down too low so they cannot get good leverage on the pedals. And finally it is everybody riding, not just people interested in fitness or racing so these requirements do not come into play.

Cooks River To Brighton Beach
botnay bay

Back here in Sydney in 2009 I get back on my bike. I immediately find there is a war going on between the pedestrians and the bike riders. Suddenly I find that people are going on about this problem that is the end of the world and as a bike rider, it is all my fault. A first I think is just the inability of people in Sydney to get along with each other. But as I find out more I find that there is some real anger here. With my experience of riding in Australia and China I would make the following observations about what happens in Australia. I think this is partly why there are problems here and not in China. I think it has a lot to do with selfishness. I mean, I just read an article titled the nightmare of shared paths. How can this be so. What is wrong with this place?


Before I dive into this, I do think that separate paths are better. If you look at the photo in Xian above, they are even doing this in China.

  • Bicycles are partly to blame. Bike riders in Australia ride WAY TO FAST on shared bike ways. In China it works partly because the bike riders ride very slowly. Bike riders in Australia need to also learn to look and to understand risk management. A door or other opening is a risk. Someone might step out. You need to be going slowly enough to respond and react, even to stop.
  • Pedestrians need to be more considerate of others too. They need to walk on one side of the path and not in the middle. They should avoid taking up the whole path when they can avoid it. They should listen for bikes and move to one side. As in Chine, sudden movements are a bad thing. No not stop or prop. The bike may be heading for the place you were about to leave. If you don’t leave you are setting yourself up to be hit.

Shared pathways will be with us forever for many reasons. So we should learn to get on and cooperate. This rage and hatred I hear and see is evil and bad. I am mighty not impressed.
Note: I have also cycled in Japan, Finland and Switzerland. But in those places I only cycled in the country side, So I did not get any useful experience related to cyclists and pedestrians.


  1. I have had a few comments back on this in conversation.
    The most common reply to the inability of Australians to hear the bikes coming is that this is clearly a problem with people wearing iPods. But I disagree. None of the people I observed had iPods. It is a general lack of situational awareness.

  2. the other comment I had forgotten above was a man said that in Canberra you are allowed to ride on the footpath if you need to. This is a very sensible law. If there is no traffic then ride on the road. But if there is massive traffic, or road works or some other issue that make riding on the road dangerous, ride on the footpath. Of course ride slowly on the footpath not at the speeds you would ride on the road.
    Maybe what we need is a foot path speed limit… say 10 or 20 kmh?

  3. Hi Yewenyi,
    I have done lots of stories for The Glebe newspaper about shared paths. Do you live in the Inner West of Sydney?
    Email me on the address above.

  4. Just recently Morgan wrote: …still can’t believe how courteous and good natured Dublin drivers are to cyclists, after getting used to Sydney.

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