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February 10, 2011

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The trundling tricycle turns trendy

CLUNKY old tricycle carts, laden with junk, recycling all manner of things, lumber along the streets in the early morning and night, often with a migrant worker straining at the pedals.

Though sanlunche, or tricycles, are often seen in Shanghai, they are technically illegal and are generally considered an eyesore and a nuisance.

But a modern and trendy tricyle - a prototype - has been produced in Shanghai for "green" passenger transport by a British engineer using a lightweight stainless steel frame, a body made of fine bamboo from Fujian Province and modern technology.

It can seat two adults (or three smaller people), in addition to the driver, and is rather like a rickshaw with a canopy and windscreen. It has eight gears and four disc brakes. A cargo version is planned.

It is not yet on the market but the developer expects the new form of three-wheeled passenger transport will be seen on the streets soon. It is now available for use on private premises and for promotions. Cost depends on fittings.

City traffic management officials, asked last week about the new tricycle, said licenses would not be issued. But there was an indication that traffic police would not interfere with tricycles for private transport, though they would object to commercial use; in those cases, fines could be issued and vehicles impounded.

This Treecycle ("Better City, Better Trike") is the brainchild of Chris Trees who founded MGT Engineering Ltd and is looking for local factories for partners. He expects it to be approved soon in Shanghai and is looking to other domestic and overseas markets.

"We are building a lightweight trike with modern technology so it's efficient and has good brakes," says Trees admiring the prototype in his sitting room on Dongtai Road where he has become something of a celebrity.

Four years ago Trees and his French wife Florence arrived in Shanghai from France and were pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to bicycle for daily transport. Not everyone agrees that's the case today.

Trees, a bicycle lover, was surprised to see the heavy three-wheeled cargo tricycles and spent 600 yuan (US$91 today) to buy one in a suburban shop.

"It's very heavy to ride," he says, adding that the old ones weigh more than 100 kilograms but his new trike only weighs around 60 kilos.

"I decorated the old trike and suggested that I ride to a friend's wedding, carrying the bride in the cart," says Trees in jest.

But not many people shared his joke in the city where bikes are dismissed and more people want a car for the sake of status.

At first Trees and his wife worked for a French advertising company where he was an engineer. Then they quit and decided to devote themselves to building a better trike.

Trees says his motto is "Break the rules! If you know it's right, just do it. Nothing is impossible." That applies to the updated trike.

In the past, the humble tricycle has never been considered for outdoor advertising, like taxi cabs. The Treecyle, with a large area of polished bamboo at the rear, would be ideal for advertising that promotes low-carbon living and sustainability, he says.

"An attractive, modern-looking tricycle, built to the highest technical standards, is sure to revolutionize the image of the tricycle in the public eye," he says on his website.

For years, Trees has advocated biking and sustainable transport and he rides his regular bike everywhere for business in the Shanghai area.

Trees and his wife remember their first day in Shanghai four years ago. They were met at the airport by a fellow company employee and given a city tour.

"We went to the supermarket and it's so different from France," says his wife Florence. "We saw all the Chinese goods and foods like frozen rabbit and frozen snake shocked us."

They were amazed as well by the crowds, the city's pace and traffic. "We knew we had a lot of things to take in and we quickly got used to living here," says Florence.

After a story about them was published in a local paper, they became celebrities in their neighborhood, which is known for its antiques markets. Many people, including drivers of luxury cars, give them a thumbs up.

"We feel the support," says Trees. "Some people in the West say Chinese don't care about environmental protection, but I meet a lot of people who really care. Chinese people are very proud of their traditions, such as old-fashioned transport and bamboo, which can represent their culture."

They see a city filled with contrasts. Some Shanghainese maintain their customs in modern areas - some still hang meats and fish outside their houses and shops and hang their laundry out to dry.

When Trees rides his Treecycle, he draws a crowd, including trike drivers. "Sometimes they want to try my Treecycle and that makes me very happy," he says, adding that it can be difficult going uphill, so he gives them a push.

Although Trees' Chinese language skills are limited, he and his wife seldom have serious communications problems.

"Sometimes understanding doesn't need words. I learn more about Chinese life when I'm on my bicycle or tricycle than people who isolate themselves in their personal cars," says Trees.

The low price of bicycles doesn't confer much status, and that's probably a big reason Chinese don't choose bikes for transport, he says.

"Green transport is accepted and admired in the West," he says. "Bicycle-friendly countries like Denmark and Holland prove it's a modern lifestyle for keeping fit and protecting the environment."

Trees is invited to many conferences about green transport and environmental protection. He always rides a bike, though many other participants drive.

"I have a Chinese driving license, but I never drive a car here," he says. "People find all kinds of excuses not to ride a bike, such as rain or cold, but once you make the decision, you can work it out."


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