Switching gears and bringing cycling culture back to China and Taiwan
Photo by badbrother.

Cycling from school in Shanghai, China. Photo by badbrother.

China is currently experiencing the fastest growth in bike-sharing in the world, with thirty-nine bike-share systems in place, with the latest addition from last month in Aksu, near the the Kyrgyzstan border. At the head of the thirty-nine cities sits Hangzhou, which currently runs the world’s largest bike-sharing program, with over 60,000 bikes in service. That’s 40,000 more than the Vélib bike-sharing program in Paris, France.

Yet, at the same time, bikes have lost the wide appeal they once had in China. “In 1950, as a status symbol, every citizen had to have three things: a watch, a sewing machine, and a bicycle”, says professional fixed gear cyclist, Ines Brunn, who has lived in China since 2004. In the last decade, however, Brunn observes that the bike has become an image of the past and a mode of transport for those who cannot afford cars. However, local governments and their citizens in China and Taiwan are recognizing that more needs to be done to promote cycling as a commuter mode and a recreational activity, beyond implementing more bike-sharing programs.

High school student Jinzi Shen, recently presenting at this year’s Global Issues Network Conference, at George Washington University (also featuring EMBARQ expert Robin King), recognized the need to promote cycling in her hometown of Beijing. Shen’s presentation, entitled, “Face Masks in China: the Many Effects of Air Pollution,” connected seamlessly with a Friday Fun post that TheCityFix had published that very day. Shen showed how she and her peers identified the untapped potential of cycling in their neighborhood in Beijing and, together with six fellow students, collaborated during the summer of 2012 to promote cycling and improve its visibility on city streets… through cycling!

We actually screamed our slogan out loud every time we passed a bus stop or somewhere that has many people. And we were really happy we did it in the kind. It was not only an exercise for us but also an environmental friendly thing to do. We attracted many people’s attention, people passing by took pictures of us. If they post them on the Internet, more people will know about our aim to help people raise awareness.

Beyond the initiative from Shen, local governments and their citizens in China and Taiwan are recognizing that, in order for cycling to catch on and grow, more needs to be done to integrate the bicycle into the variety of lifestyles their citizens lead.

China: promoting more cycling events for common people

Each year, China hosts over 100 professional cycling events, such as the Tour of China, the Tour of Beijing, and the Tour of the South China Sea. But although such events are growing in popularity, there remains a disconnect between the select few who participate in these high-profile events, and the population who remains on the sidelines. Because of the multiplicity of races, they each individually have reduced their following among local populations, placing both the races, and the cycling culture that they intend to re-invent, at a disadvantage.

Large-scale racing events are expensive; they require lots of city resources, such as law enforcement, promotion, and sponsorship; and, when all is said and done, they have a limited following and impact on the public. One professor at the Chengdu Sports Academy pointed out to CyclingIQ that the development of professional cycling in China, itself, needs to be more sustainable — harkening back to the eco-friendly nature of the bicycle itself.

But now, as China increasingly turns to cycling as a solution for traffic woes and hazardous air pollution, its cities are searching for ways to move beyond the professional racing events to encourage more recreational events for beginners and bike enthusiasts. In Beijing’s YanQing county, for example, such events include rides of varying distances and difficulty levels, mountain bike races, children’s events, and personal fitness campaigns. In doing so, the residents of YanQing are exposed to the many sides of cycling as a lifestyle, not just a sport of the elite.

Taiwan: launching cycling initiative in 2013

Off the coast of mainland China, the Tour de Taiwan professional cycling race came to a close yesterday. In a new separate initiative to attract the younger demographic, Taiwan is launching a campaign to encourage more visitors to the island to hop on a bicycle. Building off the success of Taipei’s YouBike bike-sharing system, implemented in November 2009, and national “Come Bike Day 2012,” the government of Taiwan announced their plans to sell bicycles “at a very low price to those riders who cycle a set amount of miles as well as offer free air shipping for the bikes when the participants return home.” Not only is this a sweet deal for international cyclists, but it boosts the bicycle industry in Taiwan as well. Taipei also has plans to expand their current YouBike service and improve existing stations. Aside from the 41 stations in Taipei, users praised the affordability of the bikes: for every rental, the first half-hour is free, and after that, the rate per hour is NT$10 (34 US cents).

Recalling the past, re-inventing the future

Across China and Taiwan, cities are identifying great potential in re-inventing themselves as cycling cities — not as a regression into the past but as an investment in their future, from an environmental, a human health, and a tourism standpoint. Rather than promoting cycling from a top-down strategy, focused only on the professionals, cities like Beijing, Hangzhou, and Taipei are moving toward solutions that engage their citizens to provide safer and healthier transport options.

In the course of his daily rides, Innes Brunn — our fixed gear professional rider referenced earlier — has met individuals whom he calls, “cycling lifestyle pioneers.” The urban landscape of Beijing, he notes, provides an ideal environment for beginning cyclists and commuters, with a very flat topography and streets with wide bike lanes. And outside the city, he meets groups of hobby cyclists enjoying the mountains and the exercise. Social cycling groups are also emerging across China: “They choose their route,” adds Brunn, “to have a famous good restaurant [at the halfway point]”.

The integration of cycling into commuter and recreational lifestyles is by no means limited to East Asia. EMBARQ Turkey’s BikeLab project is aiming to do the same for the citizens of Istanbul, creating great potential for peer-to-peer learning and knowledge exchange among Beijing and Istanbul.

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