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The Bicycle as a Status Symbol 33

ChinaBicycle

Man & son ride a bicycle past an Audi car in Shanghai – Photo by James D. Schwartz / The Urban Country

One of the biggest barriers to increasing bicycle transportation in many western countries is the fact that it is difficult to express one’s wealth and status on a bicycle. People are generally drawn towards people who appear wealthy (even if wealth is often just an illusion in our personal debt-ridden society).

A luxury automobile is the easiest way to express one’s wealth to strangers in the public realm. Luxury cars are indeed head-turning, attention-grabbing toys, and they allow men to compensate for their own insecurity or other personal deficiencies.

Rightly or wrongly, this is how our society works, and using a bicycle often leads people to believe a person is choosing this method of transportation due to their inability to afford a car.

We work very hard on this website to show that there are many benefits to using a bicycle – and the frugality of a bicycle is but one of these benefits, and certainly not the main reason why people ride a bicycle. People mainly ride bicycles because of the convenience, speed and the predictability in arriving to their destination in a consistent amount of time.

I have friends who insist they pick me up in their car if we’re meeting somewhere. They can’t understand why I would rather take my bike than accept a ride in their car. The best way to explain it is to have them imagine that my bicycle is a convertible automobile. I would rather have the wind in my hair and the enjoyment of riding my bike to the destination than sit inside a boring car.

A new trend is beginning to emerge in China, where wealthy men are buying expensive luxury bicycles as a more pragmatic means of transportation, while still allowing them to expose their wealth and status.

A report by Pang Qi for the Global Times in Beijing highlights this new trend. Qi writes:

“Zhao Huizhen, a Beijing resident who has worked as a civil servant next to Sanlihe Road for almost 25 years, never imagined that bicycles, which people used to ride to work every day, would actually become in-demand luxury items sought after by China’s nouveau riche.

From Ferrari to Lamborghini, bicycles now manufactured by some of the world’s first-class automakers are gradually gaining in popularity as industry experts have predicted a return to the bicycle since cars have experienced booming development in recent years.

During the 21st China and International Bicycle and Motor Fair in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province this May, UCC bicycles, which are made in Taiwan, sold out even though they cost 50,000 yuan ($7,730) each, according to the Beijing magazine Oriental Outlook.

Xie Jian is the eastern China director for the Qida Trade Corporation, which is the same company that sells Ferrari in China. He told the magazine that at least one Lamborghini bicycle, which costs 345,000 yuan ($5,334), the most expensive kind found in Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province, is sold every one or two months. A young Ferrari car owner came to him specifically to buy a Ferrari bicycle, which goes for 20,000 yuan ($3,092), Xia said.”

With China’s emerging wealth, rapid economic growth and competitive markets, status is important for business and those who are wealthy love to show it off with their expensive cars.

LuxuryBikesChina

Luxury bikes in China – photo by Pang Qi / Global Times China

But the Chinese are already coming to terms with road space capacity and dealing with traffic jams that last days and span across dozens of kilometres. It’s only a matter of time before the Chinese turn back to the bicycle to embrace a mode of transportation that has provided them the freedom of mobility for more than a hundred years.

Related Articles on The Urban Country:

Qi writes on:

“As Zhao recalls, some 20 years ago here in the capital, when a traffic light would turn green at an intersection, rows of bicycles would swarm out into the street, and the scene would always look somewhat “grand.”

For people like Zhao, riding a bike back then was anything but a showcase of a person’s wealth.

“We never rode expensive bikes, most of our bikes cost just 100 or 200 yuan ($15.5 to $31), like the Shanghai brands Forever or Phoenix,” she told the Global Times.”

Read the full article on the Global Times

Seeing wealthy Chinese people already turning back to the bicycle is a sign that the rapid growth of the automobile in China might have peaked in some of China’s most heavily populated cities.

Riding a bicycle in China is largely viewed by Chinese people as something that only foreigners and poor people do. But Chinese people also have fond memories of using bicycles for transportation during their childhood – a far more rosy picture than the current automobile gridlock that they encounter in modern day China.

If a bicycle can become a status symbol, Chinese people may look at bicycles as more than just a pragmatic, efficient way to get around Chinese cities and the growing wealthy class of people may embrace bicycles again just as they did when they were growing up.

The Urban Country last visited China in 2010. Check out our collection of articles from China that highlight the role that the bicycle plays in Chinese cities even to this day. Thanks to our friend Mark Green for sending this story. Mark is an expat living in Shanghai.

James D. Schwartz is a Transportation Pragmatist and the Editor of The Urban Country. You can contact James at james.schwartz@theurbancountry.com or follow him on Twitter.

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  • http://twitter.com/BehoovingMoving Steven Fleming

    I recall the furor over something I said in a BikePortland interview, that expensive bikes serve a role in inverting the class assumptions that helped cars get so dominant.
    http://bikeportland.org/2011/05/25/interview-bikes-architecture-and-cycle-space-with-steven-fleming-52985
    I see cycling AS the agenda. Marxism, environmentalism, public health, transit, prosperity—individually, these only win when they are allied behind human powered transportation. China needs an expo showcasing super top end bikes, to middle class Chinese (I don’t mean another trade show, linking factories to western bulk-buyers).

    • http://www.theurbancountry.com James Schwartz

      I liked how you explained why the Netherlands didn’t need materialism/status to sell bikes to the mainstream:

      “Holland and Denmark were Calvinist strongholds originally, so anti-materialism has been a driver of cycling all along. The prime minister of Holland demonstratively rides his bicycle to work to let people know he’s down-to-earth and wants to save a few bucks. Whereas, most other countries are materialistic, mine [Australia] included. I’m a part of that. I’ve got a bike collection. I love bikes.”

      Besides making a bicycle a status symbol, making urban bicycling “cool” is also an approach to help gain momentum. A photo of Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel riding bicycles to a restaurant a block from my home the other week really reached out to a lot of people who wouldn’t otherwise consider using a bicycle in the city: http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20524137,00.html

      More stories of celebrities riding bicycles for transport (without helmets even) can help to make bicycling cool and reach out to the masses.

      • http://twitter.com/BehoovingMoving Steven Fleming

        Well, I hope they get that onto rides-a-bike soon! ridesabike.tumblr.com
        Hey, good luck with http://www.ratemyvelo.com. I just uploaded a bundle and will get busy tweeting and facebooking etc — assuming any meet editorial guidelines :)

  • http://twitter.com/BehoovingMoving Steven Fleming

    I recall the furor over something I said in a BikePortland interview, that expensive bikes serve a role in inverting the class assumptions that helped cars get so dominant.
    http://bikeportland.org/2011/05/25/interview-bikes-architecture-and-cycle-space-with-steven-fleming-52985
    I see cycling AS the agenda. Marxism, environmentalism, public health, transit, prosperity—individually, these only win when they are allied behind human powered transportation. China needs an expo showcasing super top end bikes, to middle class Chinese (I don’t mean another trade show, linking factories to western bulk-buyers).

  • http://www.theurbancountry.com/ James Schwartz

    I liked how you explained why the Netherlands didn’t need materialism/status to sell bikes to the mainstream:

    “Holland and Denmark were Calvinist strongholds originally, so anti-materialism has been a driver of cycling all along. The prime minister of Holland demonstratively rides his bicycle to work to let people know he’s down-to-earth and wants to save a few bucks. Whereas, most other countries are materialistic, mine [Australia] included. I’m a part of that. I’ve got a bike collection. I love bikes.”

    Besides making a bicycle a status symbol, making urban bicycling “cool” is also an approach to help gain momentum. A photo of Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel riding bicycles to a restaurant a block from my home the other week really reached out to a lot of people who wouldn’t otherwise consider using a bicycle in the city: http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20524137,00.html

    More stories of celebrities riding bicycles for transport (without helmets even) can help to make bicycling cool and reach out to the masses.

  • kfg

    “it is difficult to express one’s wealth and status on a bicycle.”
    That’s why God invented the cashmere great coat.

    “A new trend is beginning to emerge in China”
    Rene Herse got there first.

    “They can’t understand why I would rather take my bike than accept a ride in their car.”
    Welcome to the club. I’ve got one friend I have to continually argue with about not taking a ride to go to a club only two blocks from our homes. It gets tiring. The fact that I walk and I’m inside sipping coffee while he’s still trying to find a parking space a few notches closer than the one he just left doesn’t seem to buy him a clue. Driving is simply the way one gets anyplace and that’s the way it is.

    Oh, he just blew the engine on his car. Go figure. Cost him 5 grand American and he still only has the status of a crappy old Ford econobox to show for it. Just prior to this I had offered to set him up with a brand new bike, assembled from the bearings up by myself, for $150. He said he couldn’t afford it.

    People are funny critters.

    • Montrealize

      “Oh, he just blew the engine on his car. Go figure. Cost him 5 grand American and he still only has the status of a crappy old Ford econobox to show for it. Just prior to this I had offered to set him up with a brand new bike, assembled from the bearings up by myself, for $150. He said he couldn’t afford it.”

      Somebody is gonna have to explain this stuff to me; I know a lot of folks like that and it never squared in my mind.

  • kfg

    “it is difficult to express one’s wealth and status on a bicycle.”
    That’s why God invented the cashmere great coat.

    “A new trend is beginning to emerge in China”
    Rene Herse got there first.

    “They can’t understand why I would rather take my bike than accept a ride in their car.”
    Welcome to the club. I’ve got one friend I have to continually argue with about not taking a ride to go to a club only two blocks from our homes. It gets tiring. The fact that I walk and I’m inside sipping coffee while he’s still trying to find a parking space a few notches closer than the one he just left doesn’t seem to buy him a clue. Driving is simply the way one gets anyplace and that’s the way it is.

    Oh, he just blew the engine on his car. Go figure. Cost him 5 grand American and he still only has the status of a crappy old Ford econobox to show for it. Just prior to this I had offered to set him up with a brand new bike, assembled from the bearings up by myself, for $150. He said he couldn’t afford it.

    People are funny critters.

  • Jill

    I like the fact that these “luxury” bikes are 1/3 to 1/4 the cost of a racing bike. Some status symbol.

    • John__Henry

      I have a feeling that a f1 car is much more expensive than a Cadillac.

      • http://www.theurbancountry.com James Schwartz

        Not to mention the fact that $7,000USD in China is roughly equivalent to about $35k here in terms of bicycle affordability.

  • Jill

    I like the fact that these “luxury” bikes are 1/3 to 1/4 the cost of a racing bike. Some status symbol.

  • Montrealize

    “Oh, he just blew the engine on his car. Go figure. Cost him 5 grand American and he still only has the status of a crappy old Ford econobox to show for it. Just prior to this I had offered to set him up with a brand new bike, assembled from the bearings up by myself, for $150. He said he couldn’t afford it.”

    Somebody is gonna have to explain this stuff to me; I know a lot of folks like that and it never squared in my mind.

  • Montrealize

    “But the Chinese are already coming to terms with road space capacity and dealing with traffic jams that last days and span across dozens of kilometres.”

    How crazy must a society be to accept *days* long jams.

    They better hop on the cycling wagon but before that, they’ll have to reverse the years of campaigning against it. In lots of Asia there has been severe crackdowns on bicycles as it was asymbol of poverty and revealed the under-developped status those countries had back then.
    Even in Japan they tried to crackdown on the mamacharis.

    But *taddaam* we have a solution: they need Cycle Chic!! Let’s send Mickael over there. This along with the 20 000$ bikes should get all of them back on bikes in no time!!

  • Montrealize

    “But the Chinese are already coming to terms with road space capacity and dealing with traffic jams that last days and span across dozens of kilometres.”

    How crazy must a society be to accept *days* long jams.

    They better hop on the cycling wagon but before that, they’ll have to reverse the years of campaigning against it. In lots of Asia there has been severe crackdowns on bicycles as it was asymbol of poverty and revealed the under-developped status those countries had back then.
    Even in Japan they tried to crackdown on the mamacharis.

    But *taddaam* we have a solution: they need Cycle Chic!! Let’s send Mickael over there. This along with the 20 000$ bikes should get all of them back on bikes in no time!!

  • http://www.theurbancountry.com James Schwartz

    There seems to be some discussion on reddit about high end racing bicycles being a status symbol. This article is not referring to racing bicycles. To me, when I see someone riding a $15,000 racing bicycle, I think they are just really into racing. I don’t perceive it as them showing off their wealth or status at all.

    Notice that those high end bicycles the Global Times article is referring to are city bicycles made for transportation, not for racing. These wealthy Chinese men want to arrive at an exclusive club on a Lamborghini bicycle in fancy clothes. They aren’t going to arrive in racing gear on an expensive racing bicycle in lycra clothes and then go into the bathroom at the club to change into their club clothes.

    • kfg

      “I think they are just really into racing.”

      That was true back in the day. If you saw someone on a real racing bike, you knew absolutely that he/she/it was a racer; and serious about it.

      The fact that most owners of racing bicycles today never race at all (and the bikes themselves are not bikes that I would chose to race on) and own the bike as a status symbol is one of the reasons I do very little hanging out with the owners of racing bikes these days.

      The fact that they tend to have little in the way of road skills, or basic manners, is another. They are well heeled people (doctors/lawyers/yada yada) who in the days before Lance!(tm) would have spent their weekends pretending to be football players. Jocks, not bike racers, or even necessarily cyclists.

      In any case, your basic point is correct, luxury cars have nothing to do with racing cars, which really, really have nothing to do with luxury. Even after you’ve gold plated and diamond studded your Rolls or Lambo it still cost a million less than a GP car you couldn’t even get in without hurting yourself. Actually, the typical driver of a Rolls or Lambo couldn’t get in a GP car without a chainsaw; applied to them, not the car.

      Luxury isn’t the same thing as conspicuous consumption, although they may both relate to status. Status need not rely on either of these. For instance uniqueness may carry status. The fact that I have something you want, but can’t have, because I have it.

  • http://www.theurbancountry.com/ James Schwartz

    There seems to be some discussion on reddit about high end racing bicycles being a status symbol. This article is not referring to racing bicycles. To me, when I see someone riding a $15,000 racing bicycle, I think they are just really into racing. I don’t perceive it as them showing off their wealth or status at all.

    Notice that those high end bicycles the Global Times article is referring to are city bicycles made for transportation, not for racing. These wealthy Chinese men want to arrive at an exclusive club on a Lamborghini bicycle in fancy clothes. They aren’t going to arrive in racing gear on an expensive racing bicycle in lycra clothes and then go into the bathroom at the club to change into their club clothes.

  • John__Henry

    I have a feeling that a f1 car is much more expensive than a Cadillac.

  • http://www.theurbancountry.com/ James Schwartz

    Not to mention the fact that $7,000USD in China is roughly equivalent to about $35k here in terms of bicycle affordability.

  • kfg

    “I think they are just really into racing.”

    That was true back in the day. If you saw someone on a real racing bike, you knew absolutely that he/she/it was a racer; and serious about it.

    The fact that most owners of racing bicycles today never race at all (and the bikes themselves are not bikes that I would chose to race on) and own the bike as a status symbol is one of the reasons I do very little hanging out with the owners of racing bikes these days.

    The fact that they tend to have little in the way of road skills, or basic manners, is another. They are well heeled people (doctors/lawyers/yada yada) who in the days before Lance!(tm) would have spent their weekends pretending to be football players. Jocks, not bike racers, or even necessarily cyclists.

    In any case, your basic point is correct, luxury cars have nothing to do with racing cars, which really, really have nothing to do with luxury. Even after you’ve gold plated and diamond studded your Rolls or Lambo it still cost a million less than a GP car you couldn’t even get in without hurting yourself. Actually, the typical driver of a Rolls or Lambo couldn’t get in a GP car without a chainsaw; applied to them, not the car.

    Luxury isn’t the same thing as conspicuous consumption, although they may both relate to status. Status need not rely on either of these. For instance uniqueness may carry status. The fact that I have something you want, but can’t have, because I have it.

  • Jean

    With increased obesity among some Chinese who are eating more restaurant food, processed food, etc., a focus more on health for such folks might be a useful motivator for cycling more often per week. One cannot change another person’s values of status, but it’s a WHOLE lot easier to gently help them from the standpoint of improved health and fitness for themselves and for their loved ones.

    I know well about the wealth-status near obsession of some Chinese….many immigrate and carry with them those ideas. Like my parents, many of my relatives. But one thing in common to all: they care about being healthy.

  • Jean

    With increased obesity among some Chinese who are eating more restaurant food, processed food, etc., a focus more on health for such folks might be a useful motivator for cycling more often per week. One cannot change another person’s values of status, but it’s a WHOLE lot easier to gently help them from the standpoint of improved health and fitness for themselves and for their loved ones.

    I know well about the wealth-status near obsession of some Chinese….many immigrate and carry with them those ideas. Like my parents, many of my relatives. But one thing in common to all: they care about being healthy.

  • Gclarke

    James;
    You made some gross generalizations with no supporting data; “One of the biggest barriers to increasing bicycle transportation in many western countries is the fact that it is difficult to express one’s wealth and status on a bicycle.”

    I don’t see how you can support this assertion. Here’s data I found for US Texas demographics -

    BOWMAN-MELTON ASSOCIATES, INC. FOR THE NORTH TEXAS CLEAN AIR COALITION
    Households with over $50,000US annual income are more likely to own and ride a bicycle than any other group.
    Households with less than $7,500US income per year are more likely to ride to work than any other group -23% cycled to work in past month.
    26% of the general population rides recreationally
    39% of recreational riders hold professional or managerial jobs
    The median age of recreational bicyclists is 35
    9% of recreational bicyclists currently bike commute
    37% of recreational bicyclist would bike commute if there were showers, lockers and secure bike-storage facilities
    60% of bicycle commuters are male/ 40% are female
    30% of current bike commuters do so 10 or more days a month
    48% of current bike commuters do so 5 or more days a month.
    34% are over 30 years of age

    Based on this study bike commuters are either poor (23%) and use bikes as a primary means of transportation or they are in the middle class income level (US), are recreational bikers, and 9% have taken the next step to bike commuting.

    According to the study the biggest drawback to bike commuting is the lack of showers and bike storage.

    Can you provide statistics on bike commuter demographics in Toronto?

    The question is how many Toronto BMW drivers would leave their cars in the garage, hop on their Cervelo R5′s, and bike to work if they could grab a shower and put on their Gucci loafers?

  • Gclarke

    James;
    You made some gross generalizations with no supporting data; “One of the biggest barriers to increasing bicycle transportation in many western countries is the fact that it is difficult to express one’s wealth and status on a bicycle.”

    I don’t see how you can support this assertion. Here’s data I found for US Texas demographics -

    BOWMAN-MELTON ASSOCIATES, INC. FOR THE NORTH TEXAS CLEAN AIR COALITION
    Households with over $50,000US annual income are more likely to own and ride a bicycle than any other group.
    Households with less than $7,500US income per year are more likely to ride to work than any other group -23% cycled to work in past month.
    26% of the general population rides recreationally
    39% of recreational riders hold professional or managerial jobs
    The median age of recreational bicyclists is 35
    9% of recreational bicyclists currently bike commute
    37% of recreational bicyclist would bike commute if there were showers, lockers and secure bike-storage facilities
    60% of bicycle commuters are male/ 40% are female
    30% of current bike commuters do so 10 or more days a month
    48% of current bike commuters do so 5 or more days a month.
    34% are over 30 years of age

    Based on this study bike commuters are either poor (23%) and use bikes as a primary means of transportation or they are in the middle class income level (US), are recreational bikers, and 9% have taken the next step to bike commuting.

    According to the study the biggest drawback to bike commuting is the lack of showers and bike storage.

    Can you provide statistics on bike commuter demographics in Toronto?

    The question is how many Toronto BMW drivers would leave their cars in the garage, hop on their Cervelo R5′s, and bike to work if they could grab a shower and put on their Gucci loafers?

  • Gclarke

    Here’s what your neighbors in Ottawa and Gatineau are doing to promote alternative transportation to the “masses” –

    http://ottawastart.com/story/15089.php

    “The day began with a bike-bus-car challenge that took place during rush hour, demonstrating the practicality of commuting by bicycle or transit.

  • Gclarke

    Here’s what your neighbors in Ottawa and Gatineau are doing to promote alternative transportation to the “masses” –

    http://ottawastart.com/story/15089.php

    “The day began with a bike-bus-car challenge that took place during rush hour, demonstrating the practicality of commuting by bicycle or transit.

  • http://twitter.com/BehoovingMoving Steven Fleming

    Well, I hope they get that onto rides-a-bike soon! ridesabike.tumblr.com
    Hey, good luck with http://www.ratemyvelo.com. I just uploaded a bundle and will get busy tweeting and facebooking etc — assuming any meet editorial guidelines :)

  • Tkeen

    People can make status symbols out of anything. Designer blue jeans are a case in point.
    Also, I was reminded while reading these comments by people mentioning Cadillac that Cadillac actually makes bicycles (or maybe they just license their brand to someone else who does)

    http://www.cadillacbikestore.com/

    I don’t know how good the Cadillac bicycles are, and I’ve never seen one around.

  • Tkeen

    People can make status symbols out of anything. Designer blue jeans are a case in point.
    Also, I was reminded while reading these comments by people mentioning Cadillac that Cadillac actually makes bicycles (or maybe they just license their brand to someone else who does)

    http://www.cadillacbikestore.com/

    I don’t know how good the Cadillac bicycles are, and I’ve never seen one around.

  • http://www.vouchercodespy.co.uk/ voucher

    Technical accessories include cyclocomputers for measuring speed, distance, heart rate, GPS data etc. Other accessories include lights, reflectors, security locks, mirror, water bottles and cages, and bell.
    Bicycle helmets may help reduce injury in the event of a collision or accident, and a certified helmet is legally required for some riders in some jurisdictions. Helmets are classified as an accessory or an item of clothing by others.

  • http://www.vouchercodespy.co.uk/ voucher

    Technical accessories include cyclocomputers for measuring speed, distance, heart rate, GPS data etc. Other accessories include lights, reflectors, security locks, mirror, water bottles and cages, and bell.
    Bicycle helmets may help reduce injury in the event of a collision or accident, and a certified helmet is legally required for some riders in some jurisdictions. Helmets are classified as an accessory or an item of clothing by others.

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