A new saying about Beijing's traffic goes: "Cars are jammed, bicycles are slow, scooters are best." Beijing's expat motorcycle and scooter riders enjoy weaving in and out of jams, but many of them are unaware that they are driving illegally.
Xavier, a Frenchman who works in an insurance-related company, loves his motorcycle. He bought it a year and half ago at Wudaokou for a mere 2,200 yuan (US$272). Now he has ridden 10,000 kilometers on it. Although he has spent more than 1,000 yuan (US$123) on reparations, plus 15 yuan (US$2) worth of oil for every 80 kilometers, he thinks it is a good deal.
"If I take a taxi, it costs me 10 yuan (US$1.23) to go four kilometers. So my motorbike has saved me 25,000 yuan (US$3,125) during this past a year and a half," he calculated. "Back in France, the same motorbike would cost me 10 times more."
He has been to the Hutong, Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, the bar streets and outside Beijing on his bike.
"It is not expensive, and I'm never late anymore," he claimed. "It is the cheapest and best way to discover Beijing."
With all of its merits Xavier knows he has been driving the motorcycle illegally.
His 125 cc motorcycle, which can hit up to 100 kilometers per hour, has a Hebei plate that cost him 300 yuan (US$37). But in Beijing only a Jing-A (-A) plate can go beyond the Fourth Ring Road.
Also, his motorcycle is not supposed to go on the second, third, fourth and fifth ring roads.
Even worse, the city stopped issuing any new plates for new motorcycles in January 1998, But plates for scrapped Jing-As can be bought for up to as much as 15,000 yuan (US$185).
The punishment for driving without a license can be an 800 yuan (US$99) fine and 13 days' custody.
Safety is also a problem. One Korean student at the Beijing Language and Culture University died in a traffic accident in May after driving a motorcycle while drunk.
Pollution is another issue. Beijing has already asked all vehicles on the road to meet Europe III emission standards, including motorcycles. Many motorcycles and scooters do not meet these standards.
Two other types of bikes available in shops are petrol powered scooters and electric scooters, called zhu li che in Chinese.
At scooter shops near Xiaoyunqiao on the North Fourth Ring Road, shop assistants said they sell four to five scooters a day. But according to a policeman on the North Fourth Ring Road, all petrol scooters are banned. If one has a D-type license for motorcycle driving, it might help. But it does not mean the scooter will not be impounded by traffic police.
As for electric scooters, Beijing Traffic Administration issued a decree in 2002, stating that all electric scooters will be forbidden by the end of 2005.
The main reasons electric scooters are to be banned are safety and battery pollution. They can drive up to 50 kilometers per hour, which is more than double the speed of bicycles. People can drive these with no training, and judging by the way some people ride bicycles in Beijing it is surely a recipe for disaster.
According to estimates by the Chinese Association of Bicycles, there are 10 million electric bicycles in China, 500,000 of which are in Beijing. The end of the year will reveal the answer to the question of electric scooters' legitimacy.
For many expats, it is the fact that they are often ignored by the police that makes them neglect proper licensing and insurance.
Briton, David Jones, bought a second hand scooter from a friend and has been driving it for a month.
"I drive past the police all the time and they have never stopped me," he said. "In Britain if a policeman noticed anybody without a license plate he would certainly pull him over. Here I seem to get away with it."
Gerald Gardebled, a motorcycle enthusiast from France, was once fined 200 yuan (US$25) for driving his motorcycle in a bicycle lane. Once he was stopped by police who suspected that his motorcycle was stolen. The police then radioed headquarters to confirm his identity and the legitimacy of his black Jing-A plate for foreigners. Although Gardebled forgot to carry his license, they let him go when they learned that the vehicle was legally his.
To get a D-type license people need to visit the Foreign Affairs' Office of the Beijing Traffic Management Bureau. They will then be asked to fill in a form and take their passport and resident permit and go through a physical examination and then pass a traffic rule test and a driving test.
Expats can either go by themselves or contact Beijing Foreign Enterprise Service Group (FESCO) to have people help them complete the process at a cost of 800 yuan (US$99).
"If you ask them, most people do not want to break the law," said David Jones. "They would also be hoping that conforming to the law won't cost them too much money, time and effort. They just want to get any problems sorted out quickly and easily."
Foreign Affairs Office, Beijing Traffic Management Bureau
Location: 90 Laiguangying Xilu, Chaoyang District, next to the Fifth Ring Road
FESCO Chenguang Company
Location: Room 315 to 324, FESCO, 14 Chaoyangmen Nandajie14
(Beijing Weekend November 15, 2005)