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Back to Bicycling Basics in Beijing
To address continued air pollution and traffic congestion woes, Beijing is harkening back to its days as the "bicycle kingdom" and introducing policies to encourage more cycling. Photo by Dave-Gray.

To address continued air pollution and traffic congestion woes, Beijing is harkening back to its days as the "bicycle kingdom" and introducing policies to encourage more cycling. Photo by Dave-Gray.

According to The Guardian, 20 years ago, four out of five Beijing residents pedaled around China’s capital in some of the world’s best bike lanes.  However, this number has decreased as private car ownership has gone up. From 1995 to 2005, China’s bike fleet declined by 35 percent while private car ownership more than doubled. Beijing is currently home to four million cars. Last year, China overtook the U.S. in auto sales, with a 46 percent increase in sales over the previous year.  As cities in China have grown, bike lanes have also been eliminated to accommodate more traffic lanes for cars and buses.  By all indications, it’s seemed that Beijing was well on its way to usher in a new king – the automobile.

But is the city of 17 million ready for king car?  Perhaps not, as Beijing’s air quality continues to be poor (last week BeijingAir‘s monitoring station reported a few ‘hazardous’ air quality days). Liu Xiaoming, the director of the Municipal Communications Commission, said in a Xinhua article that the government will “revise and eliminate” regulations that discourage bicycle use and impose greater restrictions on car drivers.  Beijing already has limitations to reduce the number of vehicles on the road, continuing the odd-even license plate policy after its successful implementation during the 2008 Olympics. (And read my post about Beijing’s ban on “yellow label” vehicles here.)

The government also plans to restore bicycle lanes that were torn down, as well as to build more parking lots for bicycles at bus and subway stations to encourage additional cycling.  Also an improvement: The city will make more bikes available for rent to defray the cost of owning a bike (a new one can cost as little as $20-$40) and allay fears of bicycle theft, a rampant problem in the city. By 2015, the number of bikes for rent will total 50,000.  Today, only about 100 bicycle rental booths exist in Beijing, and owners are “cautiously optimistic” that the plans to increase rental bikes will be successful in reducing the number of cars on the road.

As a frequent cycler in Beijing, I am thrilled to see bicycles making a comeback and look forward to breathing in the benefits of these new policies.  If successful in producing the “smoother traffic” and “clearer skies” Beijing officials are hoping for, perhaps we’ll see the return of the “bicycle kingdom,” with more cities following suit with cycling as part of a sustainable transportation solution.

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  • china bicycle manufacture is very interesting, they all design the same things because they want to earn fast money and copy each other.

    This comment was originally posted on Bicycle Design

  • Sounds great!


    This comment was originally posted on Bicycle Design

  • Hi Angel – great blog – loads of info on here – good stuff

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  • jamesmallon

    "I just think there will be a point when the growing wealthy population in China realizes that car culture comes with its own set of problems."

    Except that it hasn’t happened in N. America yet, has it? The ’set of problems’ that come with car culture are externalities that are borne more by the poor, so what’s the incentive for the wealthy? Common humanity? The 20th century makes it hard to believe there’s much of that anywhere.

    This comment was originally posted on Bicycle Design

  • Rob

    I thought the ban on motor scooters in Guang dong and Shenzhen was partly to do with street crime. Purse snatchers and muggers were using them to rob women as they went to work. This ban probably caused the increase in bicycle use.

    This comment was originally posted on Bicycle Design

  • Thanks for the comments so far everyone.

    Ron and Sergio, I don’t think it is surprising at all that bike use is declining worldwide. It is something I don’t like to see, but it is certainly not unexpected. The only thing that surprised me a bit was that bicycle use seemed to be back on the upswing.

    Anon, 10:35, You have to be kidding! I never even implied that the poverty in China or any other parts of the world is not a very real problem. I was simply saying that the bicycle, more than any other object, has come to be viewed as a symbol of that poverty, especially among those who can afford to abandon it. The gap between rich and poor has widened dramatically in the last decade, so those (real not perceived) poor Chinese workers have to contend with cars on the roads that were not there a short while ago. Many of the new drivers treat them like their lives do not matter, so it really is increasingly dangerous for them to carry out their daily tasks. Given that situation, I understand exactly why they want to ditch their bikes in favor of something they think and hope will make their lives a little better. I just think there will be a point when the growing wealthy population in China realizes that car culture comes with its own set of problems. At the current rate of automobile consumption, that will probably be sooner rather than later.

    This comment was originally posted on Bicycle Design

  • Sergio

    I wonder why this is so surprising. The perception of bicycles as "poor" man’s transport exist even in countries like Spain(Europe)…

    This comment was originally posted on Bicycle Design

  • Anonymous

    Only a wealthy middle-class ‘designer’ can type the phrase –

    I do believe that the perception of the bicycle as “poor mans” transport plays a big role in the average Chinese worker’s aspiration…

    -without a hint of irony. They don’t ‘percieve’ themselves as being poor, they ARE poor. Look around you, who are the people in the West taking up alternative cycling lifestyles? The ones that CAN ALREADY afford cars.

    When your basic needs are barely being met and you’re working 60 hours a week for 30c an hour, you’re hardly thinking to yourself "Gee, how can I change my image".

    This comment was originally posted on Bicycle Design

  • Was In Gounagzhou and Beijing a couple of weeks ago. First time in China. Heard that some cities have banner internal combustion scooters. So there has been an increase in the use of e-bikes and possibly bikes as well.

    This comment was originally posted on Bicycle Design

  • jamesmallon

    Ha. The perception of bikes, foot and transit, as a poor man’s mode of travel exists everywhere outside of the core of a dozen cities in the U.S. and Canada, too. So too the ’safety’ arms race: my safety at the expense of society, dammit!

    This comment was originally posted on Bicycle Design

  • Blogs are so informative where we get lots of information on any topic. Nice job keep it up!!

    Graphic Design Dissertation

    This comment was originally posted on Bicycle Design

  • Good observation you have there. Have you read of the saying that God created the world and everything else comes from China. Yeah mostly of the products coming from China are emitations but there still some original ones.

    This comment was originally posted on Bicycle Design

  • Ron

    I wonder why this is so surprising. The perception of bicycles as "poor" man’s transport exist even in countries like India and that’s mainly due to the things you suggest. Middle class families want a quicker, safer way to commute to work or drop the kids to school or take the family out for a vacation and bikes aren’t going to do that for them. Obviously, there’s a huge boost to self-esteem and respect through ownership of a car in society and so riding a bicycle is seen taking a step backward instead of heading in the direction of progress, or what the common majority see as progress. But that’s not to say there aren’t groups of people cultivating the need to exercise through riding bikes in certain areas. Still a majority of them feel like they are taking a risk through bike riding. When you don’t feel safe on a bike, you’re not going to ride it.

    This comment was originally posted on Bicycle Design

  • The stylish looks and image of Fixed Gear and Single Speed bicycles might get people interested in green and healthy solutions to get through traffic fast. Also in China.

    At the moment I am in Bangkok where these bikes are rapidly growing in popularity. I am on my way on one from Singapore to Shanghai and visited a meeting of Bangkok Fixed Gear yesterday. I will also do so in Shanghai.

    This comment was originally posted on Bicycle Design

  • The ban on small sized engined cars, vans and motorbikes in centres of many cities in Guangdong province as an act to minimize traffic jam and pollution might contribute to the rebound of bicycles in those places as you saw. It seems that Shanghai and Beijing have not introduce this ban…

    This comment was originally posted on Bicycle Design

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  • Syed Saiful Alam

    With a few simple steps, we could make more livable. The first step is to change our priorities, by emphasizing access, not mobility, short rather than long distance travel, children, not cars, and livable environments, not just transport. “We need a model in which happiness, rather than consumption levels, is the measure of success.”

  • “50 of Haiti’s most prominent architects, engineers and urban planners have been meeting daily since the January 12th earthquake to discuss and plan the city’s future.”

    Uh-oh. This kind of planning by the wealthy elite can only spell trouble for ordinary Haitians.

    This comment was originally posted on Spacing Montreal

  • Public transport – the missing element in metropolitan life

    As a metropolis Dhaka has the dubious distinction of not having a coherent public transport or mass transit system. With a population of 12 million the city has to rely on every kind of ad hoc and improvised transportation. Examples of improvised modes of transport are the ‘tempo’ or ten-seat mechanised three wheeler, another variety named ‘human hauler, and on a fixed route in the old city even horse-drawn carriage is being used in a limited way to ferry passengers.

    The rickshaw itself is a cumbersome vehicle, particularly unsuited for plying the long routes. And it is not uncommon to find three adults riding a rickshaw, adding ugliness to the existing chaos of the city traffic. There is no easy or express communication linking the new city with the river terminal in Sadarghat. Whatever public transport services exist they run north-south and there is no transport on east-west route after withdrawal of BRTC. There was a great possibility to develop suburban railway system for which the infrastructure had been bequeathed by the British government. Suburban railway could handle a major part of the city’s traffic load, as it does in Kolkata and Mumbai. But such projects, it appears, were farthest from the minds of the successive rulers. Suburban railway running at short intervals would of course necessitate laying of parallel tracks and construction of tunnels, and these were quite feasible if due attention were paid to them. If suburban railway could be developed then many people would prefer to keep their families in the suburban towns and the city’s population would be somewhat lessened. Instead, minibuses were brought into the streets to handle the main load of city traffic — an absurdity without parallel. In the mean time the BRTC which had all along been providing a modicum of transport service was allowed to decay. The BRTC’s double-decker buses had proved to be of great utilitarian value but these are no longer seen on the roads. Although new arterial roads were built like Bishwa Road and Rokeya Sarani, they failed to yield the desired benefit because overwhelmingly it was private cars and rickshaws that ran through them.

    The present situation has not emerged in a day. Lack of pro-people commitment of the successive governments was amply reflected in the state of the city’s public transport. As buses have not been developed the people have become dependent on private cars and rickshaws. Hence the overcrowding and the tailback. In this context the call by experts and environmentalists for a pro-people communication system with emphasis on public transport, as reported in an agency report published in yesterday’s New Age is timely. These groups belonging to Paribesh Bachao Andolon are not the first to try to draw government’s attention to the need for a transport system that serves the common people. But the question is whether the government lulled by World Bank’s medication is wakeful at all.

    Syed Saiful Alam

  • Cycle Training in Dhaka: More than it appears

    For four hours a week, one section of a residential street in Dhanmondi comes to life with the shouts of playing children. Boys and girls, age five on up, are on bicycles—a few with training wheels, most without. Some are just learning, guided by a helping hand, while others ride confidently on their own, despite the child’s diminutive size. Teenagers join in the ride, and even a few adults come to learn.

    One of the trainers leans down and asks a child, “How do you feel about riding a bike?” “I love it!” exclaims the child. “Which would you rather do, play computer games, watch TV, or ride a bike?” “Ride a bike!” “What if Tom and Jerry cartoons were on?” asks the trainer. “Then what would you rather do?”“Ride a bike!” the child repeats.

    It is clear from watching the children that this child is not alone in his fascination for cycling. The other kids of all sizes are also happily absorbed.A few official helpers, themselves aged only 12-15, move around the bicycles and clusters of children with authority, ensuring that everyone gets a chance at a bicycle, helping young children learn, and checking that the bikes are in good condition. A sturdy 14-year-old circulates with a pump and tools, fixing the bicycles when they fall into disrepair. Various adults from the neighborhood also gather, mothers to watch their children with anxiety and pride, father and brothers to help with the program, or just to enjoy the evident pleasure of the children.

    A CNG baby taxi driver slows to a stop in front of a large sign featuring Einstein and a Bangla slogan, “Cycling is intelligent transport.” Other vehicles slow down as the drivers and passengers stare at this unanticipated sight of children riding in the street, in a lane marked with small signs with messages such as “Let us play” and “Cycle training is going on”.

    The program is run by WBB Trust Thursdays and Saturdays from about 3-5 pm (earlier in winter, later in summer) in front of its office on Road 4/A in Dhanmondi. WBB hopes the program will spread, as people see the need to make better use of all the space usually devoted exclusively to traveling and parking.

    Ziaur Rahman Litu, who regularly helps with the program, comments, “Rich children have many advantages; they can get basically whatever they want. But for poor children, they may only get one meal a day. They gain no advantages in school, housing, or other areas. We need to do something for them. I can’t help them to eat, but at least when they come to our program, they are enjoying themselves, laughing, forgetting their hunger and other problems. We want to spread this joy throughout the city.”

    The mother of a very overweight boy watches with concern as her child struggles to learn, unable to gain his balance due to his unwieldy body. “I know he needs to lose weight, but where can he play? At home he’s always in front of the TV,” she explains. As her son gains confidence and slowly begins to gain balance, she herself gets onto a bicycle, riding for the first time in years. Though she falls several times and rips her salwar, she is laughing with joy. Soon she sails past her son, shouting to him, “Look at your mother!”A 10-year-old girl is riding for the first time, and slowly gains confidence, only to crash into the footpath and fall over. Her mother runs anxiously over, and someone pulls out a bottle of Savlon. The girl grins, waving everyone away, and gets right back onto the bicycle. Some parents may never have seen this aspect of their children, or perhaps only on a visit to the countryside, where their children run eagerly, climb trees, and forget to whimper or complain over minor pains.

    Another mother tells us that her daughter is usually silent, and never mixes with others. But when she saw that children are riding on the street, she suddenly became excited and begged her mother to take her to the class. This child, reluctant to talk to others, who has no friends, suddenly is struggling with persistence to learn, and euphoria breaks across her face as she pedals away from her trainer and rides free for the first time.

    Advantages for participants include not only the chance to learn to ride a bike, or to practice the skill, or to enjoy outdoor play, but the confidence of the child helpers in carrying out their job, and the opportunity for rich and poor to mix in a safe setting. For guardians and the others who congregate on the footpaths, this is an opportunity for recreation simply in watching others, laughing at the spectacle of grown men stumbling as they learn, and at the pleasure of children.
    WBB Trust explains that in a good city, children can safely walk and cycle to school, traffic systems are not all geared towards the convenience of car drivers but allow others to move safely by other means, office workers can transport themselves by bicycle without cost, and parking for cars does not take priority over play space for children.

    Children need play spaces, not just in the home but outdoors, where they can move about freely and mix with other children. Relying on playgrounds and fields in the crowded city of Dhaka is no solution. If children are to have any hope of a happy childhood, with full opportunities for development, then we have to consider turning some of our less trafficked streets into playgrounds, at least a few hours a week, so once again our city can ring with the happy shouts of children.

    On a Saturday afternoon, as the street again fills with children and bikes, other children are playing in the only space available for them—the roof of their luxury apartment building. As they toss a ball to each other, the ball frequently falls down on the street, amongst the cyclists. The players congregate on the roof and stare down at the children, perhaps wondering when they, too, will be able to make the street their playground.

    Syed Saiful Alam

  • Port au Prince should be largely abandoned. It has basically had the same fate as Cap Haitien, being a Haitian capital city located on a fault (Enriquillo-Plantain Garden in PauP’s case, Septentrional-Orient fault zone in Cap Haitien’s.)

    Any future investment in Haiti should concentrate on the most stable zones on that part of Hispaniola.

    This comment was originally posted on Spacing Toronto • understanding the urban landscape

  • Seuguy

    odd-even license plate policy sucks, people are forced to buy their second car with different plate number, that’s why beijing’s car selling business boost in the last year.

    BTW, why i cannot receive the sign up email?

  • this is good thinking and rule for “era”. Because there are many benefits we earn by bicycle. China’s is famous for its rules.

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  • Riley

    Here’s another fun thought while you’re at it: What would the world look like if the automobile industry and the public transit sector could somehow be compelled to switch advertising budgets for the same five years?

    The automobile manufacturers spend on the order of US$18.5 billions on advertising each year. Paradoxically, the industry’s extensive research has convinced them that portraying the realities of automobile ownership and operation in that advertising is, at best, unsaleable. So instead we get fantasies of single cars "flying" down roads "uncluttered" with other cars, red lights, and pedestrians or bicyclists.

    The problem with that preponderance of one-sided fantasy-based messaging is the way it distorts the public dialog on transportation policy, as well as that policy’s fraternal twin, energy policy.

    So, wouldn’t it be fu if for five years or so we had slick, inescapable, unrelenting advertising that extolled the merits of walking and riding bicycles?

    This comment was originally posted on Streetsblog

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