Letter from Shanghai

In Shanghai, the bikeshare greets you. The city is littered with blue, yellow, and teal bicycles, parked along streets and in alleys. Getting on a shared bike is as simple as scanning a QR code and hitting unlock on an app. The bike (the blue ones, at least) greets me with a cheery “Hello!” and then I am off, making my way through Shanghai on bike lanes as wide as car lanes, often separated by metal dividers from the rest of the road, no helmet required.

I moved to Shanghai from Singapore, a city largely unaccommodating of cyclists, and since arriving I have become a cycling evangelist. Cycling is not new to Shanghai, or to China. What is newer is the dockless bikeshare, but even in Singapore, there was a brief period a few years ago when dockless bikes flooded the city as part of a Chinese startup’s expansion. They quickly disappeared from Singapore, but in Shanghai they are part of daily life, buoyed by the extensive bike infrastructure that make cycling the easiest way of navigating the city.

Despite the current ubiquity of the colorful shared bikes, I have met Shanghainese who remember a time when most people owned bikes. Back then, the only other vehicles on the road were buses and private hire cars, and these people do not share my current enthusiasm for the bike lane, having seen biking get more dangerous over time. The proliferation of motorcycles that power China’s nationwide logistics network means bicycles are a minority on the bike lane, and often I have found myself surrounded by anxious delivery riders trying to meet the demands of the gig economy.

But fundamental to the order of the bike lane seems to be a certain respect between the lane’s occupants. While bikes and scooters tussle for bike lane real estate, they are not its only inhabitants. In many parts of the city, the sidewalks are inhospitable to wheelchairs, strollers, and any large luggage. For the first month I lived in my apartment building the sidewalk outside was being repaved, and so my first experience walking in the city was in the bike lane, exposed to the rush of scooters, doubtful of their ability to avoid a collision.

Over time, I have gotten better at guesstimating. I now know the amount of space I need to pass another bike, the average speed at which a car may back out of a driveway, how fast I need to push myself to catch a green light. In the bike lane, I find myself navigating around elderly on mobility devices, dogs being walked, other dogs in dog-prams, constantly afraid today might be the day I cause grievous harm, and yet it hasn’t happened, the delicate dance of the street working itself out each time.

Still more incredibly, some of the difficult work of delivery is still done on bicycles, and often cargo is strapped precariously onto the back of bicycles: long planks that extend across the width of the bike lane, large cages of 5-gallon water jugs, a trailer piled high with cardboard. I feel the shakiness of readjusting my weight every time I get on a bike with a tote that throws my center of gravity off, and yet these bikes, laden with cargo, roll slowly, steadily, down the bike lane, with complete reassurance of their stability.

Cycling seems to come naturally to these deliverymen, unlike me, for whom a startling amount of thinking goes into biking. I bought a three-month bikeshare pass at first, unsure if this fire would survive into the winter. The cold brought with it yet another layer of complexity. I’ve lived in places where it snows, dropping a hush over the streets. Shanghai’s winter rain, on the other hand, brings with it an extra din. These days, when I am on a bike, I find my focus narrowing, unable to focus on a podcast, oblivious to the shops or people I pass.

All in all, this winter has been mild. But in Shanghai, even if the winters aren’t cold, they are punishingly wet, and humidity has a way of worming itself into my bones. For most of October both my knees were scraped after two separate falls off my bike during autumn storms; there were days in January I was afraid to cycle for fear of inviting the wind in through the layers of my jackets. But then I leaned into the winter, bought a pair of thick gloves, and continued to cycle through the city, finding the smallest of joys in quick bike trips.

This joy has ground to a halt since the mid-March when an Omicron surge threatened China’s zero-COVID policy. Still, I find my time indoors marked by the shared bikes. When the surge started, I stopped leaving the house except to cycle out for groceries, wracked by the anxiety that spending too much time around people would land me in a hospital, my roommates in an unknown hotel, and my entire compound in a 14-day lockdown. But by the time it was my compound’s turn for a preventative 48-hour lockdown, I was so antsy that the day I was released my friends and I spent the afternoon cycling, marveling at a city that had turned halfway into a ghost town.

Then the rolling lockdowns stopped working, and the local government announced that the entire city would go into lockdown. What was meant to be five days inside has now stretched into an indefinite, uncertain future. The day before this lockdown started, I biked out on an hours-long grocery run, trying to salvage what I could from a city ransacked by panic buying. The last photo I have from this outside is of police tape strung between shared bikes, repurposed now that their users would shortly disappear inside their homes, fencing out a hotel that had already been sealed off.

There was a day maybe a week in, when I woke to a rare blue sky and for the first time mourned the outside. As a feeble substitute I stood on my balcony and tried to breathe. Downstairs, the streets were almost empty. Then, as if from nowhere, a man on a yellow shared bike rode up on the pavement, round the corner across from our building. Later, I would wonder how that scene came to be—rumors run abound of people rendered homeless by the lockdown, messy bureaucracy preventing them from returning home—but in the moment I sat in the delight of the aberration I had witnessed: a regular citizen, doing something as regular as riding a bicycle.

I miss cycling, and I miss the city. I am holding my breath for the day I will hear the bike’s “Hello!” coming from outside my apartment, announcing the start of someone’s adventure. I can’t wait to trigger that “Hello!” myself, running errands like I used to, setting out for the grocery store, the bank, a café, a night out. For now, I wait, and I look from my balcony for signs of life.

Cheng Mun Chang