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Reader photos: Cargo bikes rule the streets of Beijing

Posted by on September 7th, 2011 at 1:31 pm

In Beijing, cargo bikes flourish for several reasons, including a city policy that prohibits large trucks from entering the central city. See and read more about Beijing’s cargo bike scene from reader Collin Roughton, an urban studies student who just returned from the city after a summer internship.

Reader Collin Roughton (whom you might recall from the “Money for Miles” bike tour he did in 2009) is recently back from a study trip in Beijing, China where he spent a few days observing their cargo bike culture.

Many of you might think Portland has an amazing cargo bike scene. We do; but Beijing has us handily beat when it comes to using bikes as urban freight-hauling tools.

Roughton said the diversity of people and bikes he saw in Beijing was “awesome to see” and he shared some of his photos with BikePortland. I’ve published several of them below, along with thoughts from Collin (as posted here).

Check out the photos below and let your mind consider how we can continue to replace truck traffic with pedal-powered bikes and trikes in our central city…

“The vast majority are actually trikes with large rear beds, usually made of steel or bamboo. They haul a wide variety of cargo: watermelons, novels, Styrofoam, houseplants, beer, goldfish, copper pipes, bootleg DVD’s, mobile hot-pot kitchens, 2×4’s, drinking water, steamed buns in bamboo baskets, orders from amazon.com, garbage, and passengers.”

“Part of the reason there are so many cargo trikes is simple economics – trucks are unaffordable to the vast majority of these small business people. Another reason is the typically smaller scale of retail stores, which often don’t require tractor-trailer-sized deliveries.”

“The biggest reason for the huge number of these small delivery vehicles, however, is government policy that prohibits large trucks from entering the city (within the 5th ring road) unless they are carrying food from the countryside and have a special permit to do so… The policy creates an incentive for goods to be shifted to smaller – and in many cases less polluting – vehicles before they enter the city. Most of the cargo tricycles, for example, are either human-powered or electric.”

“Chinese officials understand that freight is important to their economy, but they’re not limiting themselves to the standard freeway expansion solution. Perhaps it’s time to start thinking outside the box when it comes to freight transportation?”

Well said — and photographed — Collin! Thanks for sharing and I hope to see a continued surge in these type of freight vehicles in Portland.

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  • Indy September 7, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    The downside to these bikes are they routinely block traffic on small bikeways for other bikers and pedestrians. Just today I was walking with a friend and a cargo bike blocked up 50% of the Hawthorne bridge and WE had to dodge the oversized box so they could make a delivery.

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    • Spiffy September 7, 2011 at 3:56 pm

      if they’re that large they should be taking the lane…

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      • Machu Picchu September 7, 2011 at 4:32 pm

        I believe that lane is constructed like a cheese grater. I’d block the MUP, too.

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    • esther c September 7, 2011 at 4:44 pm

      MIght what a car says about a bike taking the lane. Slow down and wait, just like cars should wait for us.

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    • 3-speeder September 8, 2011 at 7:11 am

      Um…these bikes aren’t blocking traffic. They ARE traffic.

      Sound familiar??

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    • Collin Roughton September 9, 2011 at 2:26 pm

      Yeah that’s actually a good point – much of our infrastructure here in the US is not really designed to accommodate these type of bikes. It works in Beijing because the bike lanes are almost always a wide or wider than a generous motor vehicle lane (12-14 feet). During my 2.5 month stay there, I never had a problem getting around them, either on foot or on a bike. So if we really wanted to get serious about promoting smaller, more efficient freight vehicles, we’d have to take a closer look at the way our roads are designed.

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  • April Streeter September 7, 2011 at 2:32 pm

    Not just Beijing. Dongguan’s thriving cargo bike culture was amazing. Many with “electric assist” and with all sizes of riders.
    http://girlsonbikes.org/dongguans-no-1-transportation-tricycle

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  • beelnite September 7, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    Interesting. Why are all the bikes the SAME bike? And why do they all look about 30+ years old? I wonder if there’s a common thread there. Just curious.

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    • 9watts September 7, 2011 at 3:57 pm

      thirty years? beelnite. We’re all getting older. Those bikes are waay older than that. Heck my bike is nearly thirty years old.
      as for their uniformity, perhaps you forgot that China has been a communist country for more than thirty years. Not a lot of free enterprise there during the 20th Century.
      What caught my eye was that most of the riders (drivers?) weren’t on the pedals at all but had their feet up on what I think are probably foot-brakes. Then the poor buy in the next to last photo was ‘riding’ a bike that appeared to lack all pedals. What is up with that?

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      • wsbob September 7, 2011 at 4:53 pm

        “…What caught my eye was that most of the riders (drivers?) weren’t on the pedals at all but had their feet up on what I think are probably foot-brakes. Then the poor buy in the next to last photo was ‘riding’ a bike that appeared to lack all pedals. What is up with that? …” 9watts

        Possibly downhill , but probably E-bikes.

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      • Collin Roughton September 9, 2011 at 2:31 pm

        Many of the bikes did use foot brakes, and many are also equipped with either electric assist (most common) or gasoline motors. Unfortunately the ones that use gas probably pollute more than a typical modern passenger car here because they’re old 2 stroke engines that aren’t beholden to any emissions standard. It’d be cool to see some kind of incentive program to help the operators buy electric upgrades.

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        • 9watts September 9, 2011 at 2:34 pm

          “probably pollute more than a typical modern passenger car here because they’re old 2 stroke engines…”
          yes and no. By the old metric (stinky air) these are as you say, probably not very good; but by the new metric (greenhouse gas emissions) their emissions/pollution is trifling. This is China we’re talking about, so if you switch these to electric propulsion or electric assist, it bumps the pollution out of the city and into/through a coal fired power plant.

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  • Spiffy September 7, 2011 at 3:55 pm

    whose pics make me appreciate that I have a full pedal on each crank arm…

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  • 9watts September 7, 2011 at 4:02 pm

    What is to me so wonderful about this photo essay is that you can see that we will be fine without fossil fuels in our transport sector. Of course, some folks will have to swallow hard before they’ll admit that Chinese peasants are on the cutting edge….

    What you can’t haul with these contraptions you (we) can probably do without.

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  • captainkarma September 7, 2011 at 8:27 pm

    I saw the same thing in South Korea, entire families and the dog on the bike or small motorbike. Many cases (>10) of glass bottle beverages on the FRONT rack, etc.

    Does the guy with the blue shirt have bunny-ears on?

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  • jim September 7, 2011 at 10:36 pm

    So many people here have badgered walmarts bikes because they are made in china. It was said that they are week and will break. It looks like these bikes are plenty strong. Perhaps we should rethink our views of those walmart bikes.

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    • 9watts September 8, 2011 at 3:41 pm

      Um, you really think Walmart’s bikes and these share anything? China is one big factory. Right.
      (1) utility trike, for domestic sale, half a century old
      (2) plastic crap for export, always new
      (3) To give an example closer to home: We ship the highest quality Douglas Fir lumber from the West Coast to Asia because they pay top dollar for them. Very very little left for the domestic market which is overwhelmingly ‘second-growth’ crap with fewer growth rings per inch than the sunflower in my front yard. If you want quality lumber our lumber yards are not going to stock any (you or I can afford). Our economies are more than able to churn out more than one kind of product. Vanilla & Huffy?

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    • Tom M September 12, 2011 at 12:39 pm

      Jim, lets 1st remember that the bikes these people are riding are the old Flying Pigeon bikes that have been heavily modified. These bikes are roughly 40 lb. knockoffs of the old English “touring” bikes, aka 1 and 3 speeds of old. They are tanks with very little to go wrong other than not stopping very well.

      Then there are the Walmart bikes which are disposable by design and often have to scavenge to get replacement parts for. Buying quality replacement brakes can often cost as much as what people paid for the whole bike and they end up with a 33 lb lead weight that is not durable or satisfying.

      The moral is that China can indeed build quality bikes, but Walmart doesn’t import them.

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  • Mike September 8, 2011 at 7:43 am

    Dude come on, It’s f-ing china and I am not sure you should call it a “scene” What are you going to do next, compare the bike scene in nairobi to portland. I am sure these guys love having to cart all there crap around on bikes where as here it is truly a scene and cool to cruise around on multi thousand dollar boutique cargo bikes. Not to piss in your cheerios but you’re reaching!!!

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    • dmc September 8, 2011 at 2:50 pm

      lol mike, well said.

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  • DK September 8, 2011 at 8:53 am

    Love the petina on those classics!
    Thank you for sharing.

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  • Art Fuldodger September 8, 2011 at 11:19 am

    Nice photo essay – thanks ! when in Bejing 3 years ago i was somewhat surprised by how auto-dominated it was; I rode bikes in other Chinese cities, but Bejing seemed just a little too…intense. Also was caught on a bus on one of the ring road freeways by what was, by far, the worst traffic jam i’ve ever been in…we crept along, barely, for what seemed like hours. Lots of silent screaming…

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  • Scott September 8, 2011 at 8:26 pm

    I took a bunch of shots of cargo bikes when I spent some time in China a few years ago. One of my favorites is here:

    http://practicalbiking.org/2010/05/fuller-brush-man-in-kunming-china.html/

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  • Jason September 15, 2011 at 2:18 pm

    9watts
    What is to me so wonderful about this photo essay is that you can see that we will be fine without fossil fuels in our transport sector.

    Assuming your food, clothing, etc., are produced “near by”. Not the case for most of the world anymore.

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  • Glenn February 18, 2014 at 4:47 pm

    “Jason September 15, 2011 at 2:18 pm

    Assuming your food, clothing, etc., are produced “near by”. Not the case for most of the world anymore.”

    Ships. Trains. We managed fine a hundred years ago. We have more people now. As we reach Malthusian limits we will have less people. See Russia for how. It’s not pretty, but it’s not the Apocalypse either. Agribiz will have to be replaced with a lot of people organic farming. If we keep trains, they will have to be electrified. Yeah, coal plants spew, they can have really good scrubbers on them, because they don’t have to go anywhere; CO2 is still a problem though. Time to build more wind turbines while we’re at peak and can still afford them. Civilization, as defined by cities, is between 5,000 and 10,000 years old. The future won’t be exactly like the past. But it can be done. Unless you can produce unobtanium vehicles powered by unicorn flatulence you better get ready to move a lot of things by bike, man-pack or animal traction that’s being moved with I.C.E.’s right now.

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