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Bicycle Rickshaws Still Pedal the Streets of China, but for How Much Longer?

TAIZHOU, China- The streets of Taizhou are full of all types of public transportation: buses, taxis, motorcycle taxis . . . But one type stands out in the backdrop of the fashionable shopping malls, mega-supermarkets, and soaring high-rises of modern China as a relic from another era: the bicycle rickshaw. Throughout the streets of this [...]

TAIZHOU, China- The streets of Taizhou are full of all types of public transportation: buses, taxis, motorcycle taxis . . . But one type stands out in the backdrop of the fashionable shopping malls, mega-supermarkets, and soaring high-rises of modern China as a relic from another era: the bicycle rickshaw.

Throughout the streets of this city are hundreds of three wheeled bicycles that have small carriages attached to their rears. A bench sits in theses carriages, and a big shade canvas rises over it convertible style. Passengers usually find these rickshaws at busy street corners and hop into the back to be pedaled to their destination of choice.

I walked up to an old bicycle rickshaw driver in a residential neighborhood of Taizhou with my wife and two year old child, told him where I wanted to go and asked how much it would be, but received an unexpected response: words that I could not understand. The driver only spoke the local dialect, which took me by surprise as usually people who can’t really speak standard Mandarin are able to roughly communicate what they need to for their profession. But this old rickshaw driver probably never rally needed to speak “The Common Tongue” as he went through his days carting Taizhou locals from place to place. I was thus given a look into how deeply integrated into the local communities this form of transportation is.

Bicycle rickshaw

We then moved down to a line of bicycle rickshaws that were waiting for passengers near the entry/ exit intersection of the community. The first driver in the line jumped on us when he discovered that we were interested in using his service, and did not even bother to finish chewing his lunch before he began trying to get us into his cab. Rice and pickled vegetable chunks flew from his mouth and bounced off my shirt as he stated his price: 8 RMB.

“That’s more than a taxi!” I exclaimed.

He then lowered his price to seven while chasing after us. We got into the rickshaw of a driver farther down the line who said his price was seven RMB without spitting half chewed food all over me. Seven RMB ($1.10) is how much a taxi would have cost for the ride we were requesting, but anything less than this probably would have made the rickshaw driver’s efforts a waste of time. For three people to be pedaled two kilometers on a hot day, a touch over one US dollar seemed too meager an offering — but this is just what happens when a new technology begins to surpass an older one.

The rickshaw driver then turned his beast around and began pedaling us through a busy street. Cars, ebikes, and motorcycles swarmed all around us. This bicycle rickshaw was the slowest thing on the road, and the vehicles coming up from behind easily overtook it.

Rickshaw driver

We soon approached a bridge over a canal and the rickshaw nearly ground to a halt on the incline. The driver jumped out and began pushing. In moments like these it’s my impression that many Americans are compelled to feel guilty. Our culture is not accustom to watching the people who labor on our behalf, and we often feel compelled to tip them or something else to ease our sense of guilt. But pedaling — or in this case, pushing — a loaded rickshaw through the streets was this man’s job, his profession. To jump out of the rickshaw to help him would be belittling. It is common for manual laborers to take pride in their work, and there was no way that I was going to strip this man of this in order to ease myself of my culturally ingrained guilt.

Many Westerners seem to feel that providing manual services to others is a belittling activity, and many project this feeling onto those who do such jobs around the world. Some refuse to have their shoes cleaned, others shower people with tips as though they were beggars, and, in general, crap on those whose job it is to provide a service to others. It is the people busting their ass for a living that tend to have the most pride in their work. I leave my guilt for the next chump and hire people to clean my boots and pedal me around town in bicycle rickshaws.

So I sat there and watched the man before me sweat as he pushed me and my family up and over the bridge. When he’d gotten us near our destination I told him that it would be OK to drop us off at the street corner but he would hear of no such thing: he pushed up and onto the sidewalk and wouldn’t let us out until were were at the door of our destination. He smiled and nodded as we departed.

The bicycle rickshaw has so far survived the tumbling roll of progress that eastern China is going through, and their continued existence attests to the fact that a good portion of the population prefers to take the the slower road to their destinations.

Though I have to admit that I don’t really understand why bicycle rickshaws still exist in this country. They are no cheaper than taxis or motorcycle rickshaws, are more expensive than buses, they take longer, and are probably more dangerous. In Taizhou, and many other mid-sized cities in China, there is no deficit in public transport — and it is common to see taxis, motorcycle rickshaws, and bicycle rickshaws sitting in long rows at intersections, idling in wait for passengers.

In many Chinese cities bicycle rickshaws have already been banned. Due to their slow speed and wide girth, they are often viewed as a traffic annoyance at best, a hazard at worse. It is my impression that I’m looking at the last generation of bicycle rickshaw drivers in China. Most of the men and women who do this work are pretty old, and it seems as if few younger people are going to step up to do such a difficult job for such low pay. China is a country that now moves very fast, and I’m afraid that the pumping legs of the bicycle rickshaw driver can no longer keep pace. My guess is that using this form of transportation is a matter of tradition, of habit for many people in the older communities of China’s cities — but it seems to be a tradition that, like so many others, is set to fizzle out into history. I predict in ten years the only bicycle rickshaws working the streets of this country will be those in tourist zones, giving visitors a feel for what old China was like.

Filed under: Changing China, China, Transportation

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 89 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3474 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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