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Utility Cycling in China 23


All photos by James D. Schwartz / The Urban Country (May 2010)

In big Chinese cities – like it or not – bicycles are a vital ingredient to keep the cities moving. From pizza delivery, to painters, to garbage pickup, to cargo shipping, to transporting people – bicycles are everywhere in cities like Shanghai and Beijing.

Unfortunately, in smaller cities like Haikou, Hainan – where I am currently staying – bicycles have all but disappeared from everyday life. Scooters, e-bikes, motorcycles, public transit and automobiles have become the primary methods of transportation and doing business in Haikou.

Bicycles in China are regarded as the poor man’s vehicle – so it is no wonder people jumped on the opportunity to purchase an automobile, scooter or motorcycle as their incomes increased. After all, smaller cities like Haikou have more space to store and park them than bigger cities in China and you typically have to travel further to get to your destination.

(Not the mention the sweltering heat in this sub-tropical climate where a 5 minute walk will leave your clothes dripping with sweat).

It is these reasons, I reckon – that bikes are still so prominent in Shanghai – where space is very limited and everything is closer together and expensive. Bikes are efficient, cheap, and take up very little space on both the roads and for parking.

But Shanghai has a choice to make. As automobile usage continues to rise, do they take away space from bicycles and scooters to make room to support more automobiles? Or do they encourage people to continue using bicycles instead of cars?

It’s very obvious in Shanghai that cars take up too much space to be a sustainable solution for the future of the city. When traffic is at a halt, you can watch hundreds of scooters and bicycles pass by on the cycle tracks while the cars wait.

Cars do serve an important need in cities, but the capacity of automobiles that a city can support is much more limited than bikes, scooters and motorcycles.

If you have any doubts about the usefulness of bicycles in China, I have snapped hundreds of photos over the past 2 weeks to showcase real Chinese utility cycling. Here are my 30 favourite photos:

These e-bikes are used for delivering KFC chicken – a very popular chain here in China:


The KFC and Pizza Hut delivery people even wear bike helmets (an otherwise rare occurrence here):


This painter is headed to work on his Dutch-style bicycle – ladder in tow:


Boxes of fruit perhaps?


Flowers anyone?


These cargo trikes are very common in Shanghai:


This city worker and her colleague were using one of these cargo trikes to pick up trash from the sidewalk and roadway:


Here’s another trike packed to the gills:


These gentlemen were transporting what appeared to be a bed. I captured this shot while they were taking the bed off the bike:


More flowers for sale:


If you look carefully, this father son pair were transporting a big bag of something on the back of their bike.


Here’s a snapshot from behind to better show you the big heavy bag tied to the back of the bike:


This trike is just sitting there idle right now:


This is how they recycle in China:


Sometimes these trikes are used as a “getaway car”:


This labourer had everything he needs strapped to his bike:


This trike was taking scraps away from a building renovation:


Yes, there is really a bath tub on the back of this bike:


Blind spot? What blind spot?


Another day, another trike:


Yes, this guy is actually hauling a refrigerator on his bike:


This worker was filling up the water tank on the back of his bike:


Where was he pumping the water from you ask? The fire hydrant of course!


I’m not sure what this guy was planning to build. Some sort of cage perhaps?


Yup, that’s a bed he’s moving on his bike:


Look who just purchased a big screen TV:


Whoa, this big screen TV is a bit heavy:


Fruit delivery on bikes is very common in China:


Here’s another city cleanup crew using a bike to pick up the trash and transport the workers:


James D. Schwartz is the editor of The Urban Country. You can contact James at

Stay tuned – more articles from my 3-week trip to China are on the way.

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  • Todd

    Love the photos. The trikes are especially cool. We’re starting to see bakfiets here, I think that’s the next thing we need to have imported. Imagine how useful those could be for someone living/working downtown. I totally want one.

  • Claire

    Great photos. Fridges beds and TVs…. oh my.

  • boyan

    Hahah ‘look who just purchased a big screen TV’!

    Awesome article!

  • Mikael

    wonderful stuff! brilliant portrayal of real people using bicycles.

    funny, that delivery man for KFC with the helmet is only wearing a helmet because he works for an American company…

  • James D. Schwartz

    Todd, it sounds like a good business idea to import these trike cargo bikes to North America. The only issue is that the space we have on our roads in Toronto is more limited than the 1 car lane width cycle tracks in China. Nevertheless, it would be manageable.

    Mikael, it’s definitely because those are American companies. I’m sure it was recommended by the lawyers to prevent any liability on behalf of the corporation.

    Having said that, those Pizza Hut and KFC delivery guys ride really really fast.. I’d guess those e-bikes easily get up to 40-50km/h, so if anything those corporations should require motorcycle helmets instead of foam-laced bicycle helmets.

  • Sue ‘sans’ helmet

    completely unimaginable here! brilliant!

  • Anonymous

    Both bakfietsen and trikes are already being imported to North America. In fact, pretty much any bike shop can order Chinese-made trikes, some with e-assist, as either a special order or as part of their lineup. They look like a good idea but are awful to ride.

    More importantly, why assume that we “need to have” these bikes imported”? The best bakfietsen are now being made in the US, specifically Oregon.

  • Chris Rust

    Nice article thanks. Just a minor nit-pick. You describe one bike photographed early on in the article as “Dutch Style” but the classic Flying Pigeon style Chinese bike has been around for over 100 years so it would be just as valid to call traditional bikes in the Netherlands “Chinese style”

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