We’ve been getting around town, at first, via taxi, then by bus. It costs about $2.00 to take a taxi anywhere we need or want to go. The bus is even less, about a quarter a ride. This is fairly cheap by US standards. But in making decisions about transportation, like anything else, there are political and social factors to think about as well.

In Portland, our primary mode of transportation is the bicycle. Riding a bike keeps you in shape, and doesn’t contribute to global warming. It’s interesting that two of the US’ main health epidemics, spewing Greenhouse gases into the environment, and obesity, could in part be solved through increased utilization of bikes.

While individual acts based on principle are essential, they alone will not solve the ecological crisis we are in. For that we will need to change society.

So here we are in China, where the bicycle once was the dominant mode of personal transport. This society is certainly changing, but it’s going in the totally wrong direction. China is becoming a car dominated culture.

We have not given in to this rising tendency however. No, fear not, we just bought two new bikes, Flying Pigeons in fact, kind of a Chinese Shwinn in that they are everywhere, in all makes and varieties. They cost us 350 Yuan2, or $46.00 each. They are single speed, the kind of bike that you can backwards peddle on freely without affecting your velocity. They come with a little bell we can ring to tell other cyclists or scooter riders we are coming up behind them.

In 2002 there were 143 bikes to every 100 Chinese households. In 2003 China produced one third of the world’s total number of bicycles, 78 million. But all that is changing, as the government encourages private car ownership by the emergent middle-class, and bike riding is increasingly relegated to the poor. Having a car is a status symbol.

Riding a bike in Chengdu changes one’s perspective on the city entirely. No longer are you either huddled up and cramped with fifty other people on a slow moving bus, or alternately, being carried along by a seemingly maniacal taxi driver with a horn fetish who takes his and those in his care’s lives in his hands with every ill advised swerve and turn.

On a bike you move at your own pace, breathing the air, seeing the people and shops and homes along the way. Although it’s increasingly being taken over by the automobile, Chengdu is still better designed for bicyclists than any American city.

The bike lanes have physical dividers from the rest of traffic, usually a median with trees, flowers, and a small fence. In addition to bikes, you also have the ubiquitous scooter, and electric bikes to share the lane with, as well as the occasional taxi and people strolling, or standing waiting for a bus, or getting on or off a bus, or driving a rickshaw. There are myriad possibilities of what you’ll encounter along the way.

When approaching intersections, you leave the relative safety of the bike lane and have to watch out for the endless parade of cars turning right, as they have the right-of-way. And, you have to watch out for the on-coming cars making left-hand turns, which appear legal either at the beginning, middle, or end of a Green light. The traffic lights all have a separate Green for bikes, and you have to jog right a little to cross main streets on the designated lane (again while watching for turning cars, trucks, and buses).

It seems that Chinese drivers have a kind of sixth-sense. They know how to cut-the-gap just ahead of colliding, all with a serene, nonplussed look on their faces.

Despite drivers’ antics, I have yet to see any instances of road rage, or even someone being upset about being cut off. The rule for driving, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, is every-person-for-themselves-but-be-cool. You can cut in front of someone and make that left hand turn during a Green, but be prepared for someone else to pull the same thing on you.

At the same time, as crazy as the car traffic is, life in the bike lane is truly life in the slow lane. Everyone, even the scooters and electric bikes, rides so slow. Incredibly slowly, like 3 – 5 mph slow.

The other day I was able to ride to one of our favorite parts of town, where there is an English language lending library, a small French cafe, some good restaurants and a vibrant youth culture around Sichuan University. It took only 25 minutes to ride there. This made the city seem much less daunting and more manageable – I can ride my bike there and back!

Now we ride to the grocery store, to the bookstore, to the cafe, everywhere. It gives us more of a sense of autonomy and freedom. We’re more in control when we don’t have to rely on bus schedules or flagging down a cab.

China once relied primarily on bikes for transportation. Today this nation is at a crossroads, having recently become the number one emitter of Greenhouse gases in the world. Pollution from China is turning up over the West Coast of the United States.

Ecology is beginning to get some consideration here, in part due to preparations for half a million foreign visitors for the Olympics next year, and in part in response to the reality of a severely degraded natural world.

To what degree ecological thinking begins to guide policy and everyday decisions in this country of 1.2 billion will determine to a great degree the fate of human life on earth.

*Generally when Mandarin Chinese is translated into the Romanized pin yin system for Western readers, the tone marks are not included. This is very unfortunate, because without the tone marks not only do you not know how to pronounce the word, but you don’t know what it means. Words can be spelled the same, but which of the four tone marks will determine its meaning and how it’s said. Many books containing “Chinese” words in the West are in fact almost completely useless due to this omission.To help remedy this, whenever I use Mandarin words here, I will indicate which tone it is immediately after the word.