Where commuters pedal by the millions

What the car is to Americans, the bicycle os to most Chinese. "You Americans have too many cars," Deputy Premier Li Xiannian told an American visitor recently. "And we Chinese have too many bicycles."

Anyone who has watched rush-hour traffic at the corner of Changan and Dongdan avenues knows whereof the Deputy Premier speaks.

A thick crowd of blue-coated, blue-capped cycle riders pauses at each avenue, waiting impatiently for the light to change in their favor. Pedestrians wade into the tide at their peril, and cars turning the corner from one street into the other look like bewildered whales caught in a shoal of quick-darting fish.

China, of course, has cars -- family-sized Shanghai taxis, sleek curtained hongqi (red flag) limousines for the high-ranking, trucks, buses, and military vehicles of various kinds. But for the Mr. Zhangs and Mr. Lis of urban China, the normal means of travel is by bicycle.

The two-and the three-bicycle family is becoming about as common as the two- and three-car family in the United States.

In 1979 China produced 10 million bicycles, according to official statistics. One in every 12 Chinese possesses a bicycle. Owners lavish the same care on their two-wheeled vehicles as they do on four-wheelers elsewhere. I have rarely seen a dirty bicycle in Peking, just as I have rarely seen a diety car in Japan. And owners are brand-conscious as well.

A "Phoenix" is not the same as a "Flying Pigeon," and both are different from "Everlasting," though all three may look as inscrutably alike to the unpracticed eye as all Orientals are said to look to visiting Westerners.

One friend of mine prefers "Flying Pigeon" because it has a larger frame and a sturdier seat and suits his husky girth. Anohter swears by "Phoenix," which is light yet durable and just the thing for city cycling. The monarchs of the two-wheeled world are imported Raleighs, purring along on three gears. They can only be brought in by Chinese returning from overseas, and they attract as much attention as a Lotus or a Maserati.

Bicycles cost from 150 to 170 yuan ($100 to $110 or so) -- two to three times the monthly salary of most office workers. Even then, they are not all that easy to obtain.

One must first get an authorization from his place of work, and then wait for months for the actual vehicle. But many commuters manage to jump the queue in one way or another One acquaintance told me it took him only three days to buy his vehicle through an uncle in the Army.

It is strictly forbidden to carry another person either behind or in front. Regulations say nothing, however, about sidecars. Many parents have therefore constructed flimsy wooden one-wheelers in which to deliver their young offsprings to kindergartens and nurseries. In almost all families, husbands and wives work, and the only way they can do so is to place their young children in nurseries.

Bicycles also serve as light delivery vehicles. In the flow of Peking's two-wheeled traffic, the red postman's cycle is an occasional entrant, as is the tower of a flat-floored ambulance, the patient bundled up in multicolored quilts.

The coal deliveryman pulling his heavy load of crushed-coal briquettes rides cheek by jowl with the carrier of Chinese cabbages, or long-handled brooms, or freshly baked bread.

And it is all pretty noiseless traffic. The occasional jingle of a warning bell is all one hears as Peking's commuter millions make their twice-daily pedal-tour from suburban home to downtown office.

"So much better than going by the crowded, smelly bus," one commuter says to another. Never mind the occasional snow or rain that turns pedaling into something less than a joy ride. Never mind the nippy night air and the occasional open manholes that the municipal service bureau sometimes forgets to mark.

Hertz and Avis have not made their appearance here yet, but any visitor who wants to rent a cycle has only to go to his neighborhood bicycle repair shop. It's much cheaper than a taxi, and you will really feel yourself to be a citizen of Peking.

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