In China's bustling metropolises, rush hours are nightmares for office workers each morning and evening. East China's Hangzhou, known for its charming scenic spot West Lake, is no exception.
Every day, about 460,000 motor vehicles, including 360,000 private cars, are running in an endless stream along downtown streets of Hangzhou, the capital city of Zhejiang Province. About 50,000 vehicles are poured in to add up urban freight flows each year. Car drivers have doubled the average driving time from residential quarters in the western part of the city to downtown offices, from about 15 minutes two years ago to the present 30 minutes. During rush hours, it will take about 10 minutes to crawl over the 100-meter-long bridge approach to access the city's overpass lanes leading to downtown areas.
Li Meng, a section manager of a foreign-funded company in downtown Hangzhou, could no longer tolerate the jams, and bid adieu to her favorite red roadster early this year, after stinging criticism from her boss for being late.
At 7.30 one morning in January, Li drove her roadster away from her home in the Cuiyuan Residential Quarter in western Hangzhou and joined the stream of cars heading downtown. In half an hour, Li finally hit the Zhonghe Overpass Road that ran from the north to the south of Hangzhou. To her bewilderment, the vehicle flow remained locked solid for 10 minutes. She looked at her watch, and there was only 15 minutes left for her to chair a meeting in the office. Fidgeting about in her car, Li was vexed at not being able to leave her car and run to the office.
Feeling wronged by the stricture of her boss for the late, Li, in her 30s, tried another way of getting to work - a bicycle. She had a shot at it at the beginning, but later found she started to love bicycling.
Months of riding a bicycle, for half an hour amid fresh air across lanes and along the lake, Li found herself refreshed in the office.
"Going ahead at a full gallop on my bicycle while observing so many cars jammed on the Western Ring Road and Stadium Road, I am so excited and very often would simply want to whistle," said Li.
To make Li even happier, she did not buy the bicycle herself. The bicycle, orange red and fine looking, comes from a public bicycle service company funded by the local government. Li could use it for free as her use of the bicycle was far shorter than the one-hour preferential time limit.
On May 1, 2008, the Hangzhou Municipal Government began the public bicycle service program, with 2,800 bicycles at 61 service outlets across downtown areas. Since then, new bicycles and outlets have grown in number.
Li could easily find a bicycle at a public bicycle service outlet at her residential quarter. She takes a bicycle by brushing her Hangzhou citizen card at a Point of Sells (POS) machine at the outlet. She returns the bicycle at another outlet near her office.
China used to be a kingdom of bicycles. Today it sees far fewer bicycles in metropolises, as affluent Chinese city dwellers have become fond of buying and driving cars to offices. With a 1.3 billion population, China had about 650 million bicycles, including 80 million electric-driven bicycles, while it had 65 million motor vehicles at the end of 2008, according to China Bicycle Association.
In addition to convenience, cars are taken by many as a symbol of wealth. In some cities, bicycle lanes are simply abolished in many quarters, leaving rooms for cars.
But over the past year, public bicycles have become the most convenient traffic tools for many Hangzhou residents like Li. Public bicycles are also loved by tourists for short-distance trips.