Commute if You Dare: The Frantic Food Chain of Shanghai

Brian Kleiber draws from his lifelong passion in cycling as the voice and author of Culture Cycles, a personal curation what’s happening in the wide world of bikes. We caught up with him on what it’s like going from the small town and bike utopia of Burlington, Vermont, to Shanghai, China, which lacks most all commuter cyclist conveniences.
What stokes his love for bikes, what inspires him, and what's it like to live a life by bike in Shanghai where cars rule? Read on.

Where are you from and where are you now?

I grew up in New Jersey and then moved to Burlington, Vermont. Spent a good 7 years in Vermont before moving to Shanghai. I've been in Shanghai for over 2 years now and love it here.

Theo Paul Santana photo

You started Culture Cycles as a side project while living in Burlington, Vermont and have kept it up since moving to Shanghai. What brought you to the other side of the planet and what keeps you busy?

brian skateboard

I moved to Shanghai to take advantage of a unique opportunity -- teaching skateboarding to kids. I've been a skateboarder my whole life, so it didn’t take much convincing. However, the skate coach gig didn't really last long, so I quickly found my way back to the digital world and have been managing a couple e-commerce businesses, as well as working on a handful of other projects ever since. I always knew I wanted to run my own business and create things, so e-commerce to me is the perfect marriage of entrepreneurship and creativity.

What was your first experience with a bicycle? How has your relationship with bikes evolved?

woods riding

As far back as I can remember, I've always loved riding a bicycle. I used to have a small pump track that I built in the woods as a kid and was constantly scavenging wood from dumpsters and building ramps. I got my first job at a bike shop and started racing road shortly thereafter. When I made it to Vermont, I started working at The Old Spokes Home and got more interested in other types of riding: touring, bike camping and mountain biking. I started exploring Vermont's dirt roads, riding singletrack, taking weekend camping trips via bicycle and going on full moon rides.

So while the type of riding I'm doing has drastically changed since moving to China, I still get some decent saddle time and still have a blast riding.

MORE: Get to know the creative genius who's shaping bike culture in Burlington, Vermont.

What kind of bike do you ride now?

My do-it-all daily rider is my Factory Five F550 track bike. I don't have the space for a stable of bicycles like back in Vermont, so my ride of choice out here is a track bike with some wide riser bars and a Cetma 5-rail front rack.

Brain's bike

What’s the bike commuter culture like in Shanghai? How is it similar and different from biking in Vermont?

Take everything you know about traffic laws and navigating a city in the U.S. and now picture the polar opposite; commuting by bicycle here can be pretty sketchy. Here, there's no such thing as sharing the road; road users are part of a food chain; the bigger the vehicle, the more they think they have the right of way. It goes something like this: truck/bus > car/taxi > motorcycle > scooter > bicycle > segway > pedestrian.

"Here, there's no such thing as sharing the road; road users are part of a food chain..."― Brian Kleiber

I've seen busses in gridlock traffic pull out into ongoing traffic just to get ahead on a green light. Cars will speed up to pass you and then come to a sudden halt right in front of you. You really need to be on your toes if you're riding in this city.

What’s your daily commute around Shanghai like?

My daily commute is about 10 miles (16 kilometers) round-trip, on congested roads from Xujiahui to Caoxi Lu. During peak hours, I share lanes with speeding taxis, reckless bus drivers and a seemingly endless army of oblivious scooters and motorbikes.

"Riding in the bike lane is far more dangerous than being in traffic."― Brian Kleiber

There is a protected bike/scooter lane, but in my experience riding in the bike lane is far more dangerous than being in traffic. Scooters and motorbikes don’t really follow any traffic laws (neither do cars or busses) and you’ll always encounter at least a few scooters salmoning (riding against traffic on the wrong side of the road) their way towards you with not a care in the world. On top of that, cars will pull out of driveways without looking out for cyclists let alone other drivers. Even if they see you, they’ll still cut you off (remember the food chain analogy?). I’ve seen more scooters/motorbikes hit this way than I can count...It’s pretty unreal actually.

Riding around the city during normal, non-peak hours is much more mellow in comparison, especially through the Former French Concession. Riding can be really pleasant once you get used to the flow of things and how other road users operate here. You can also get out of the city fairly easily as it’s completely flat here, it’ll just take some time and patience.

What are some commuting essentials that you bring with you on daily basis?

My daily carry consists of a tool roll filled with a small patch kit, a spare tube, a tire lever, multi-tool, small 15mm box wrench and a 50 RMB note for booting a tire or buying food. I also carry a small hand pump, set of front and rear Knog lights, an Ass Savers foldable fender, my Respro mask, a u-lock and stash a lightweight Chrome rain jacket in the bottom of my bag. On rainy days, I’ll throw on a set of SKS Raceblade fenders.

MORE: Never suffer a wet rear again. Get to know one of the smartest, simplest solutions helping cyclists everywhere.

Brian's tools

How has daily bike commuting changed your routine?

"It’s the best and easiest way to improve your day-to-day life."― Brian Kleiber

I’ve been commuting daily by bicycle for about 8 years now and can say with confidence that it’s the best and easiest way to improve your day-to-day life. Not only do you get a bit of exercise, you’re also getting more in tune with your body and your direct surroundings. When I first moved to Shanghai, I didn’t have a bike for the first two months and was going crazy. Taking the subway felt like jumping into a warp pipe in Super Mario; I’d end up in some part of the city and have no idea how I’d gotten there. I had no sense of direction and felt lethargic, despite still skateboarding 4-5 days per week.

What’s a simple solution you think would encourage people to bike more in their everyday life?

Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a simple solution for this. In the states, you have more and more people trying to ditch their cars and drive less which is great. Forward-thinking companies are offering benefits for those riding to work, providing showers, bicycle parking, etc. while here in China, it seems like it’s the opposite. As a country where most people were using bicycles as their main form of transportation 30 years ago, now you’re looked down upon if you don’t have a car. You can get anywhere you need via subway or bus, yet many people see a car as something you must acquire in order to be eligible for marriage. I think the next generation and a growing number of the younger people here today are starting to see things differently, so I have faith that China will eventually catch up.

MORE: 5 Surprisingly Simple Solutions to Encourage More People To Bike Commute

All photos by Brian Kleiber unless specified otherwise