How to: Ride a bike in Tianjin (Part 1)

dscn4473feige.JPGThe last two intakes (every 6 months) I’ve done the “bike talk” – where we tell the newly-arrived foreigners about riding bikes in Tianjin. Here’s what I sent to their e-mails after we had lunch. It’s mostly bike ownership and safety stuff, meant to keep them alive long enough to learn the rules of the road (Tianjin’s traffic culture is more easily “caught” than “taught”). “Part 2” will be about actually navigating Tianjin traffic, which often astounds and appalls foreigners when they first arrive. I’m posting this because it’s an interesting cultural adjustment anecdote.

[A.] The #1 Tianjin Bike Riding Tip: Follow the locals.
This is the simplest and easiest way to ‘safely’ get a feel for the rules of the road in Tianjin. When you’re on your bike and unsure of what to do, just pick a local who looks like she’s going your way and follow her. I found this especially helpful during my first few weeks on wheels, especially when making left turns through busy intersections (like the one between the JHF office and Zǐ JÄ«n Gōng Yù).


[B.] Bike Theft is Rampant.
Many if not most associates and local staff have had their bike stolen at least once (many people have had bikes stolen multiple times). That said, here are some common things some associates do to deter bike thieves:

  • Always lock your bike, even when you’re “just going in for a minute.”
  • Use two locks, one on each tire (so they can’t wheel it away).
  • Lock your bike to something, when you can.
  • Make your bike look unique/noticeable/recognizable. Two associates painted their bikes with black with yellow stripes like a bumblebee or Stryper, that 1980’s Christian heavy metal band. Jessica’s bike has purple splotches of paint all over it. Mine is just old and ugly. Odd-looking bikes are harder for thieves to re-sell.
  • Always park in a guarded parking space, when available. It only costs 3 máo. Many associates have lost bikes at RT Mart near Zǐ JÄ«n Gōng Yù, but they weren’t parked in the guarded parking spaces.
  • There is a good chance that your bike will eventually get stolen. Don’t get too emotionally attached! ;)

[C] From [our NGO’s Chinese office manager]:
Be especially careful when riding near elderly people and pregnant women. Sometimes people can still be startled by the sight of a foreigner. Go slow.

[D] Accidents.
Normally when there’s an accident, the first order of business is to suck the guilty party into a loud, public argument. This draws a crowd, and that prevents the guilty party from getting away. “Fault” is decided by the crowd, and people would often rather have money change hands and settle it on the scene than involve a lot of trouble with the police. So both people argue until public opinion forces one person to pay a negotiated price. When police arrive, they often act as mediators.

Often if someone is knocked down, they may stay laying in the road even if they aren’t hurt, causing a hopefully sympathetic crowd to gather. This also prevents the other person from getting away. Most recently I saw a woman on BÄ«n Shuǐ Dào stand pressed against the front bumper of a taxi with her bike partly underneath the front of the car (preventing the driver from leaving), scolding him with the help of an elderly passerby. You will probably see this kind of thing happen eventually.


If you are in an accident, the best thing to is (1) immediately call the Office (——– during office hours) or [office manager’s cell] (———–) or [local NGO director] (———–) when the office is closed, and (2) wait for the police. If you have been knocked down into the road and you get up, you are hurting your chances for a judgment in your favour, and possibly giving the other person a chance to ignore you and drive off (this happened last spring with an associate). If you are injured and need to get to a hospital, call the police (110). If you are injured but able to get in a taxi, take a taxi to the hospital (this is faster than waiting for the ambulance). If you are not hurt, damage to your bike is negligible, and the other party is willing to simply let it go, it’s best to take the opportunity to leave the scene.

[E.] Don’t ride hard.
Even the more expensive bikes here can be a little flimsy sometimes. Pedals sometimes snap off, or brake pads go flying, wheels get bent and wobbly… each of those things has happened to me, and I’ve also witnessed them happen to other associates. So take it easy, accelerate slow (even when you’re late to class!), and don’t go mountain biking down stairways.


[F.] Manholes.
Manhole cover theft is pretty bad; they go missing occasionally. Keep an eye out. Usually someone will stick something (anything, like a branch) in the hole to let people know. Also, the covers are often loose, so good rule of thumb is just to avoid riding over them when you can. (I read somewhere that they go for 30 kuài a piece at the smelters.)

[G.] Don’t make sudden moves.
Punk kids on electric bikes aside, most people don’t make sudden moves or swerves when riding. If you suddenly swerve around manholes, it might surprise people around you. Slow, straight, predictability is good for riding in Tianjin. And you can gesture turns by sticking your arm out in the direction you’re turning.

[H.] Finally, don’t feel bad about feeling hesitant, scared, etc.
Those are totally normal feelings for foreigners considering joining the cycling masses of Tianjin. People here operate with a different set of road rules and expectations, and to most foreigners it looks like potentially lethal chaos at first. However, with that said, we encourage you to consider eventually getting a bike, even if you don’t want one now (Jessica walked for several months before beginning to ride). I say this because it is a very significant advantage of convenience to use a bike, which you will notice if you walk for a while. With a bike you can get virtually everywhere you need to for daily activities. Also, Tianjin is an interesting city with some fascinating modern history and historical/cultural sites, most of which are within biking distance.


9 thoughts on “How to: Ride a bike in Tianjin (Part 1)”

  1. WOW!!! I feel like I could join the biking masses of Tianjin, should I ever find myself in the county… =) I’m sure these differences are incredibly helpful to your first-time-new-to-the-country friends, particularly the differences concerning accidents and the procedure for “blame”.

    Bike safely! I love you guys!

  2. we just want to get them on the road and keep them alive long enough to figure out the traffic for themselves.

    when it comes to accidents, we tell them about the crowds so they have an idea of what can happen. But if they’re in an accident, we just tell them to make some phone calls right away and wait for the police (if it’s a serious accident). It’d be a rare foreigner that could or would want to deal with a crowd.

    We did know of one situation where a Swiss doctor wanted to force a taxi driver to pay up, but because he didn’t know how to “work” an accident scene, the taxi driver just sat there, refusing to acknowledge his presence until he gave up and let the taxi driver drive off. If he’d stayed laying in the middle of the intersection, no doubt he would have had a crowd.

  3. 哇!what a delightful post! You’ve pretty much described the situation down in Sichuan as well! True, at least for Chengdu. There isn’t much of a crowd to follow, here in the smaller towns)

    you’ve helped me relive my first few tentative months. Survival wasn’t always guaranteed! I even made up a personal ‘mantra’ ..” I am not roadkill. I’m NOT roadkill…”

    have you noticed people who fall over (or get knocked down) might stay on the pavement, wincing and rubbing their bruises even if nobody is stopping?

  4. Yeah, I’ve seen that a couple times, when people stay laying in the road to draw a crowd (2nd paragraph under “[D] Accidents.”). We had a Swiss doctor friend who didn’t know about staying down on the road, and the taxi driver that almost hit him and his kids got away.

    Speaking of reliving those first impressions of Chinese traffic:

    …legions of old squeaky bikes, most of which are black and have no reflectors. Then, widen the roads and intersections while narrowing the field of vision for which taxi and bus drivers feel responsible, reduce the North American-sized personal space bubble to the area occupied by the clothes you’re wearing, and take note that honking the horn apparently absolves the driver of responsibility for all those within earshot. That’s Tianjin traffic as we understand it at the moment (I’m hoping we improve on that; I’d like to live long enough to learn Mandarin). We’ve also noticed that it’s actually safer to cross about one minute before your light turns green, rather than waiting for the signal – don’t ask me why.

    That’s from March 2007: Stayin’ Alive Part 2: Learning to cross the street

  5. Picking someone to follow really works. That’s how I learned when and how to step into traffic and make the cars stop, and how to take advantage of other people doing so. It’s really a big game of knowing when to get out of the way and when to get in the way.

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