I’ve been pondering a recent paradox in my life (rant warning). I’ve heard from multiple sources here in Beijing (usually cyclists) that Beijing is a safe city in which to ride a bike. People are telling me this because I have been contemplating buying a bike. Truth is, I miss cycling. But here’s the sticking point and the paradox to the “Beijing roads are safe” notion: In the past two months, I’ve witnessed two dead cyclists on Beijing streets.
In over 20 years as an adult (I use the term adult loosely here), I have never witnessed a bicycle-related fatality on a street outside of Beijing, and to be honest, I’m not out and about in the city all that much. So my own experience with bicycle road fatalities makes me wary of cycling on Beijing streets.
Since I previously lived in Portland, Oregon, one of the most bike-friendly cities in the US, I thought I would do some statistical comparisons. On 27 January 2011, the Portland Bureau of Transportation issued a press release indicating, “There were zero bicyclists recorded as traffic fatalities last year.” So in two months, I witnessed two more cyclist fatalities than in all of Portland, in the year 2010.
Though Portland is much smaller than Beijing (what US city isn’t?), I compared it to New York City. A New York Times article dated 6 February 2011, reported that “deaths related to bicycle crashes rose last year to 18, up from 12 in 2009….” The reporter went on to speculate that the rise in fatalities might be attributed to an increase in the overall number of cyclists. Not zero, but still low relative to the overall population.
Realizing that my two eyewitness accounts are likely a fraction of Beijing’s annual total, I did some searching for relevant Beijing statistics online (not that I expected to find any) and I came up with no reliable information (as expected). So, I checked with some friends and found out that many people have witnessed fatalities in Beijing. One friend in particular said she witnesses one or two per month (she’s on the road daily) and reminded me that there is even a street in Shunyi with the dubious nickname of Dead Ayi Road.
Okay, so Beijing is not the safest place in the world to ride a bike, and I may still buy a new bike, but I certainly will wear a bike helmet when I do. I see countless expats, let alone local residents, riding the streets of Beijng as if it were inconceivable that they could be involved in an accident. Unfortunately, accidents on bikes happen and if it involves a car, the car usually wins (that’s double for buses and trucks). I’ve been hit by a car while I was riding a bike in Puerto Rico and no doubt had the car been over another inch, I would have lost my life or been much more seriously injured. My brother (an avid cyclist) recently had a nasty spill in Forest Park in bike-friendly Portland. It was an accident that didn’t even involve a car, but he still ended up with a fractured collar bone and a gash above his eyebrow. In both instances we were wearing helmets and the helmets did the job of protecting our heads (and gloves saved the skin on our hands). It is true that bike helmets are not the most stylish thing you could wear on your head, but then again, it sure beats wearing your brains on the outside of your head, even if it is almost Halloween.