How to: Ride a Bike in China (Part 2)

(This is the unedited version of an article from one of Tianjin’s expat magazines this month. It includes some of the bike ownership and safety stuff from Part 1, but also includes new photos and stuff about how Tianjin traffic works, which vehicles to especially fear, and honking with Chinese characteristics.)

Staying Alive and On Your Bike in Tianjin

Avoiding accidents, reducing traffic stress, and deterring bike theft in Tianjin

dscn4473feige.JPGWe’d only been in Tianjin one week when I wrote home to my family in Canada with my first impressions of Tianjin’s traffic:

…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. …you never have those awkward ‘Who’s going to go first?’ moments like you get sometimes at four-way stops in Canada when people arrive at the same time and no one wants to appear pushy. In Tianjin, everyone goes first, and whoever’s in the way has right of way.

That may not the best description of Tianjin traffic but it’s an honest first impression. Newly-arrived foreigners are often appalled by the sight of their first major intersection, and surprised when they don’t witness an accident every five minutes. Even veteran expats who are no longer intimidated can still get stressed during rush hour. But I have good news! Tianjin’s traffic is actually not chaos (really). There is a system, it’s easy to get used to, and there are specific things we can do to make our commute safer and more enjoyable. It’s just that Tianjin’s traffic culture is different from what we’re used to, and we often have trouble seeing and understanding it at first glance.


When we first arrived we were given The Guide to Living in Tianjin, which says, “Believe it or not, there are rules; however, no expat has figured them out yet.” Then it adds (sarcastically?), “Maybe you’ll be the first.” And then to make you feel better it suggests, “A sure bet is to follow the locals; let them be you example, and sometimes your shield.” Do we need shields to ride a bike in Tianjin?!

Metaphors for Tianjin Traffic

Tianijn’s traffic culture (the shared collection of traffic behaviour expectations and assumptions) is different than what many of us grew up with, and explaining it to people who aren’t already used to is a challenge. James Adams has taught English at Tianjin’s Nankai U. for six years, and he offers two helpful descriptions of how bike traffic works here.


Biking in Tianjin is like… downhill skiing. Stop thinking roads, lanes, lines, and well-defined, rigid rules. Instead, think ski-slopes. If you’ve ever been on a snowy slope, you will have noticed that there are no lane-lines, but there are some basic rules:

  1. Control your speed so you can avoid accidents.
  2. Leave plenty of space when overtaking people, especially children, pregnant ladies, or the elderly.
  3. Those in front have right-of-way.
  4. Worry about what’s in your forward field of vision, not what’s behind you.

Biking in Tianjin is also like… spawning salmon. Think of adult salmon swimming up a river: a steady stream of bodies all moving in the same general direction. They move wherever they can move, taking any option to move in the right direction. There are no lines in the stream, there is only blocked space where one can’t move, and open space where one can. People will advance as far forward as physically possible when trying to cross the road, and that often means waiting inches from the moving stream of cars or in between streams of cars. Before the Olympics, most people didn’t wait at the line.

Some Collected Traffic Wisdom

You want to turn left at a busy intersection but fear for your life; you’ve never seen a disturbed ant nest this big before. Yet using two crosswalks just to turn left is getting too tedious and pathetic. It’s time to employ…

…the #1 Tianjin bike riding tip: follow a local
This is the simplest and safest way to learn when and how to wade into rush hour traffic. That grandma with a basket full of cabbage doesn’t want to get tagged by chÅ«zÅ«chÄ“ (出租车: “rent out car” a.k.a. taxi) any more than you do, and she won’t steer you wrong.

Stay in the pack & go with the flow
Like wildebeest on the plains of the Serengeti, there’s safety in numbers. Stay in the pack and go with the flow. It’s the ones who leave the pack that get picked off by lions… or a miànbāochÄ“ (面包车: “bread loaf car” a.k.a. Chinese minivan). Average local biking speed is so slow that collisions are easily avoidable and less potentially dangerous when they do happen. Foreigners often bike faster than locals; this saves time but adds risk.


Don’t make sudden moves (but be on the lookout for them!)
Aside from a few obnoxious school kids, slow, straight, predictability is the norm for riding in Tianjin. This lets cars and electric bikers easily anticipate your movement and safely move around you. You can gesture turns by sticking your arm out. But be aware that people will still often make sudden swerves, stops, or dismounts as if they’re the only person in the bike lane! They’re assuming that the person in front has right of way and that it’s the person behind’s responsibility to pay attention and avoid those in front.

Avoid unnecessary stress factors
Foreigners in Tianjin traffic often add to their own irritation in two stress-creating ways: speed and unadjusted expectations. If it’s rush hour and you want to bike faster than everyone else, you’ll likely get irritated at the way people are always in the way. But if you aren’t looking to pass everyone, then almost nobody will be “in the way.”

Pining for home-style traffic will only add to your frustration. Our deep-rooted expectations – that people should move in straight lines with minimal weaving, that they should look behind themselves and signal before turning or changing lanes, that there even is a “lane” and that they should stay in it, and that red lights are like a door slammed shut – are inappropriate here. Don’t trust lines and laws; trust what you see in front of you. Traffic in Tianjin is much more fluid and less rigidly defined by lines.


Honking… with Chinese characteristics
In Canada if someone is honking their horn at you it either means there is imminent danger — you’re about to crash or there’s an emergency — or it means, “Hey! Get out of my #@*!^% way, you #%^*@!” In Tianjin, horns don’t mean they’re frightened or cursing you out. Honking is a regular part of everyday driving. It lets people know, “I’m here!” or “Here I come!” It’s a safety thing, almost a courtesy, like they’re honking so you don’t have to bother checking your blind spot. Usually, a honking car is merely saying, “Don’t move left, I’m coming up to pass you,” or “Edge over a bit, I can’t get by.” They’re not angry.

Vehicles you should especially fear:

  • Black cars with license plates starting in “AV…” or “DV…” These are government officials’ cars, and they drive like the unaccountable big-shots that most of them think they are. Most police are not dumb enough to pull them over for traffic violations, though it happens occasionally. Same goes for military cars, which have white license plates. Both are easy to spot because aside from their special plates, government and military cars are kept conspicuously clean.
  • Dump trucks at night. They’re kept off the roads during the day, and they will make up for lost time in the dark on Tianjin’s poorly lit streets by speeding and blowing through red lights.
  • Long-distance buses. Big, fast, unyielding, and with horns so loud you can feel it in your teeth.

Watch out for open manholes
Manhole covers occasionally go missing; keep an eye out. This especially stinks at night in the dark. Usually someone will stick something (anything, like a branch) in the hole to let people know. Also, the covers are often loose, especially in the winter, so avoid riding over them when you can.


Anti-theft Techniques: You Need Them

It’s no secret that bike theft is rampant in Tianjin. Most people I know have lost at least one bike, often more. One friend of a friend is on his twelfth. These are the collected theft deterrence techniques of people I know personally:

  • Always lock your bike, even when you’re “just going in for a minute.”
  • Use two locks, one on each tire, so it can’t be wheeled away.
  • Lock your bike to something whenever you can.
  • Make your bike look unique, noticeable, recognizable, or undesirable. I know three people who painted bright yellow striped on their black bikes, like a bumblebee or Stryper, that 1980’s Christian heavy metal band. My wife’s bike has purple splotches of paint all over it. Mine is just old and ugly. Odd-looking or older bikes are harder for thieves to re-sell.
  • Choose your bike carefully. High-quality, name brand bikes like Giant have a higher resale value and are more susceptible to theft.
  • Always park in a guarded parking space, when available. It only costs 5 máo.
  • Don’t get too emotionally attached! I hate to sound cynical, but even if you take all these precautions, your bike could still get stolen. Hold it lightly.


Special thanks to James Adams, a nine-year China biking veteran and English teacher at Nankai U., for contributing to this article and for first teaching me how to buy and ride a bike in Tianjin.


10 thoughts on “How to: Ride a Bike in China (Part 2)”

  1. James Adams here,

    At Nankai U. 6 years.
    In Tianjin 8 years,
    In China 9 years total, so far.

    Sorry for the confusion.

  2. enjoyed reading your expert Bike advice. I think i might try it with my car, navigating the middle school parking lot at morning drop off time. Driving conditions sound similar :)

  3. Manhole covers aren’t always missing – sometimes they’re swinging trapdoors.

    In 1996 I was up in Shenyang, teaching at Northeastern U., and one of the foreigners who’d lived there for around a decade mentioned that his 10-year-old son stepped on a manhole cover (even though they all knew better) and it dropped him 5ft into knee-deep raw sewage.

    All the new manhole covers are the ones cast with a built-in hinge, but the old manhole covers were cast seemingly without taking into account the fact that iron shrinks when cold. The covers might have been snug at a nice straw-gold casting heat, but cold they slip side-to-side, and tip up like nice little trap doors.

    If you look in older areas, you might see an old manhole cover with an old bike tire fitted around the edge and then set back in its hole – that’s one that somebody fixed so it wouldn’t drop some little kid into the depths.

    I knew better, and I still stepped on one and did a one-legger. It was unpleasant.

    Adrian Zenz (was with JHF) knew better (I’d warned him) and he did a one-legger. He was kind of limping for several days.

    Most people remember these, and follow the rule:

    Don’t step on/bike over/drive over ANY metal cover – road-way or sidewalk.

    So when you bike in China, be prepared for people suddenly swerving around a manhole cover that looks perfectly safe – especially if the person is older than 30.

    They know better than to go over it, and will think nothing of suddenly swerving in front of you to go around it.

  4. “A sure bet is to follow the locals; let them be you example, and sometimes your shield.”
    Interesting,I love this example.I have never gone abroad,so I do not know what is the situation of other countries’ traffic,but one thing is sure,it is different compared with here,in china.

    Those in front have right-of-way. In this sentence,may I ask what is the meaning of “right-of-way”?

    spawning salmon, From your friend’s view,I think this is also an excellent example,although I have no knowledge of this animal.
    Only read half of your article,maybe next time,I will finish it. BTW,your articles are definitely long for me to read,well,on the other hand,I can get more information on your views,I enjoy reading them.

  5. Not knowing what “right-of-way” means… that’s beautiful, Bamboo!

    Right-of-way is often written into road rules. Like at a crossroads and 2 cars are facing each other. One is turning left, one is going straight. In the west the one going straight has right-of-way. If the left turner goes first, he’s in the wrong – and if there’s an accident, he pays full damages.

    In China, it’s “I have right-of-way from anything behind”. If I swerve out and stop, people must go around or avoid an accident. If they don’t, they are in the wrong.

    If you swerve out and stop in the west, you are in the wrong for not looking behind you and endangering the traffic flow. Totally opposite (like most things).

  6. The best way I’ve heard to sum it up (not caring about anyone behind you, right of way, etc.) is to say: “If you’re in the way, you have right-of-way.” And that that your speed, size, and honking can sort of extend the front of your vehicle; for example, a speeding honking dump truck with its lights off at night approaching a red light is already “in the way” before it gets to the intersection.

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