A Beijing commute

I’ve seen photos of bicycle commutes from around the world, and felt that it was time to make my contribution. My commute is a short one — 15 minutes each way on a normal day. The pollution today was terrible, so I decided to take it very slowly. That had the advantage of making it easier to take photos. The commute is hardly as impressive or beautiful as others I’ve seen, but I hope it’s interesting in its own way. I decided to start taking pictures 5 minutes in, which meant I didn’t get photos of my neighbourhood on the way out. The photos at the end, taken on the way back, fill in these missing bits.

Here we go…

Heading East into haze on the North 4th Ring road. There’s little traffic partly because it’s after morning rush hour and partly because all the cars are waiting at the light behind me.




A busy bus stop, I have to go around the outside of the busses…


…like this.


Past the busses, and straight on. The whole city is a grid, much of it rather unexciting for biking.


A car turning right, without stopping, even with oncoming traffic. A favourite trick of drivers here. Eye contact is often actively avoided, so always assume they won’t notice you.


Straight. So very straight…


Coming up to a turn! Even on a red light, cars don’t stop to turn right, so watch out for traffic behind. Sometimes, cars will make right turns from the right-most non-turning lane, just to keep you on your toes.


In the turn. The left-turn lane is essentially impossible to get into from the bike lane, so turning bikes are forced into this narrow channel between lanes.


Right-turning cars with a red light actively avoiding eye contact. You have to wait for a car to lag a bit behind, then poke your bike in front to stop them. Cars don’t like giving up space to bikes because as soon as they let one through, they have to wait for a dozen to pass.


Made it through to the nice big bike lane.


Turn right at the Fragrant Moonlight of Lotus Club.


A quieter side street, a good way to get around the bicycle traffic jams you sometimes encounter going the other way.


A strange-looking restaurant with breakfast tables set out in front. It’s a bit late for breakfast, and anyway I ate at home. Earlier in the morning this place is packed.


This guy looked like he was showing off his trackstand for his friends. But on a tricycle.


Laundry time. The bikes behind her are sitting in front of a bike repair stand, one of thousands of such stands all around the city. The place with the red sign sells cigarettes and telephone recharge (add-value) cards.


Turn left up here at the end of the nice little road.


Straight. Again. That’s the new elevated light rail (Subway Line 13) running beside me.


Dahon power! Muscular calf demurely hidden under jeans. Sexy Raleigh 20 chrome fenders show it all.


There was an argument going on here between some woman and a taxi driver. Didn’t stop to investigate, though many others did (arguments are a major source of public entertainment in Beijing).


Turn right up here…


…under the light rail station and over the old (and very unpleasant to ride over) railroad tracks.


Someone lost a pedal (by the wheel of the bike-lane marker). An oddly common sight. Sexy Raleigh 20 fender peeking in and trying to steal the show.


This road is *always* jammed. But I can ride around all the cars…


…like this…


…to Freedom!


Left across the road through a gap in traffic, and straight through this gate. The red sign above reads: “Seriously study road transportation safety laws, establish modern transportation conciousness!”. Sure thing.


Turn right and through this gate. The speedbump in the gate is a killer.


Playing chicken with a black Audi.


Following the meandering road.


The universities here aren’t really built for walking convenience. Need to go all the way to the end.


And turn left up here, past the main entrance to the main teaching building. Bike rack all the way at the end.


Patiently waiting for my return.



And a few from the way back.

Straight along the 4th ring again, now heading West. The air still sucks (air quality continued to deteriorate all afternoon).


Waiting at a light to enter my neighbourhood. Another black Audi, this one shinier and not coming straight at me.


Entering my neighbourhood, past a very bored security guard in a box.


Passing a local primary/middle school.


Men in the neighbourhood park playing/watching chess.


Right down here…


Left down here…




Well, actually, it’s a bit further down this way.


Past the dusty pile of bikes I’ve never seen moved (which lack pedals).


Up four flights and there we are! Crazy neighbour in apartment to the right not visible.



So there you have it.


30 thoughts on “A Beijing commute”

  1. Very nice. I enjoyed seeing a non-tourist trip.

    Do drivers not stop before turning right because it’s not required or because they have not yet developed “modern traffic consciousness”?

  2. You know, I’m not so sure about that. My guess is that since drivers usually obey red lights when not turning, stopping before turning isn’t actually required by law. However, the line here between “legal” and “illegal but unenforced” is sometimes very thin. Any DVD shop will have a selection of hundreds of movies, all pirated, all technically “illegal”. Ask someone where to buy legal DVDs, and they really have to think about it for a few seconds.

  3. That was fun. Very interesting commute.

    My buddy just returned from a business trip to China, that included Bejing. Too bad, could have given him a heart stopping surprise.
    Are you a yank?

  4. Excellent post! I can practically taste the air it looks so grimy. Nice to see that the trees are beginning to sprout leaves…makes it look less bleak. Great fenders, too!

  5. Yes, the bleakness is on the way out. After apocalyptic winds last night, we even had sun and a bluish sky today! I will try to post more pictures of the fenders in future.

  6. What a great photoessay! You really captured the thrills of biking. I wish someday to bike like you. You are my hero.

  7. I was just in Nanjing and your roads actually seemed a little less intense than what I witnessed for bike commuters. Are you on the outskirts of town?

    Also, do you wear a mask for the pollution. I used to live in Los Angeles and a lot of bikers actually wear masks to block out particulates.

    Nice photoessay. Thank you for posting.

  8. Thanks for visiting! The area I live in could be called the outskirts, but not for much longer – it’s at the Northwest 4th ring road. There used to be very little outside the 4th ring, but that’s changing quickly. The roads inside the 2nd ring would probably be more “intense” for bicyle traffic, but I have not commuted in that area.

  9. Andrew –

    There once was a man from Beijing
    His bike bell he often did ring
    But he did not reply
    To his friends in Toronto
    So they started leaving bad poetry in his blog.



  10. Excellent ride…

    I visited China in 1994, and cycled about a fair bit in both Guangzhou and Nanjing. there seems to me to be very few cyclists in Beijing. Back when i visited, there were thousands on the roads ALL the time, whereas, your roads appear nearly empty! is this a recent phenomenon, due to increasing (and dire) private car ownership? or is it a Beijing thing???

  11. Ritch: I think if you had visited Beijing in 1994, you would have seen many more bikes. Increased private car ownership is indeed to blame. As I mentioned in a previous comment, the photos would probably show more bikes if I were commuting in central Beijing.

  12. i suddenly find here can leave a reply!
    haha, very very interesting photos. did you take this photos when you riding without stop?
    and turn right when red light is obey law in some small 十字路口.

  13. Yes, I took the pictures without stopping, but I had to ride very slowly. When you turn right with a red light, are you supposed to stop before turning?

  14. no. but turn left with red light,we must stop. and at some big 十字路口(how to say this word?),there is an arrow(turn left or turn right) on the light, then you should stop when the light turn red……seems i don’t write clearly…

  15. Hi. Thanks for posting the link at Bikeforums. I enjoyed viewing your snapshots.

    Beijing looks more modern and less crowded than I would have expected in pictures from everyday life.

  16. Hi, Max,
    It’s not as crowded as, say, Hong Kong, because there’s a lot more space — but it can get pretty crowded at times. Parts of it are very modern, but it’s very rural just a few kilometres North or West from where these pictures were taken. Thanks for visiting!

  17. Terrific photo essay. I hope you do another one for your new commute. I’ll be in Beijing in a couple of weeks and want to rent a bike and go from our hotel near the Lama Temple to the Olympic Center and Bei hai park. Looking forward to getting lost along the way.

  18. Thanks, Matt! Glad you enjoyed it. I don’t have my current Shanghai commute posted (frankly, it’s too short and I don’t think it’s very exciting), but you can see a slightly more recent commute at:

    The Olympic stadium is a bit of a hike from the Lama Temple (it’s right at the centre of the North 4th Ring Road), but it’s quite doable — about 10km or so would be my guess. Beijing is actually very easy to navigate, since so much of it is a perfect grid. Hope you have a great trip!

  19. Andrew, I used to live in the area that you lived, and probably we went to the same school. It was exciting and long ride on the bike though.

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