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Bicycles Still Rule, but Less Popular

Whenever he thinks of China, two things pop up in a French tourist's mind -- chopsticks and bicycles.     

But when he arrived in Beijing this winter, he found people were still using chopsticks, but the traditional swarms of cyclists were disappearing from the streets.

"I am kind of disappointed, because Grandpa was in Beijing ten years ago. When he got back, he kept on telling me of the amazing massive throngs of cyclists with more than ten people riding side by side during rush hour," he said. "It seems fewer people are riding bikes now."

Reports from the Cycling Association of China (CAC) confirmed his guess. Statistics showed that bicycle ownership was an average of 142.7 bicycles per 100 households in 2002 compared to 182.1 in 1998. In Beijing, only 20 percent of commuters rode bikes in 2002, in comparison to 60 percent in 1998.

The surging tide of 1.28 million cars on Beijing streets every day suggests a possible answer for it.

Zheng Banqiao, one of the thousands who joined the car owning group during the outbreak of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in spring, used to be in a family of three cyclists, his wife, his daughter and himself.

Now, every morning he takes his daughter to school in the car, then takes his wife to her company, which is two blocks away from his office building.

In the afternoon, he picks up his wife up on his way back. His daughter takes a twenty-minute bus ride to get home.

Three retired bikes, covered with dirt, are lying unused in the garage. "Many of my colleagues have bought cars in the past couple of years. It is getting cheaper and we can pay in installments. So to get a car is no big deal now."

Private car ownership is also rising fast at the cost of cyclists, who are left with less space and bigger risks on their way to work.

Feng Jia, 45, a diehard cyclist for 30 years, has found his biking companions quitting bicycles one after another, being fed up with the daily morning battle with cars.

"I might quit soon, too," he said.

"Beijing roads are getting broader, leaving bike lanes narrower. Cyclists have to struggle forward in the middle of cars and buses."

Though dissatisfied with the road condition, Feng seemed to really enjoy cycling.

"Going against the wind in Beijing's winter weather is so cool. I don't see why people spend so much money exercising on monotonous treadmills in gyms. The result -- keeping fit -- is more or less the same," he said.

Improved public transportation offers an alternative for Beijing residents. In the past decade, Beijing has built the third, fourth and fifth ring roads around the city, putting the metro link into operation and extending its subway network to 54.5 km, with another railway line under construction.

Surveys showed that 45 percent of people list public transportation as their primary choice in getting around.

With fewer people using bicycles as means of transport, more have started to view cycling from a whole new perspective.

Many people get on mountain bikes and head out for suburban areas outside Beijing on weekends. The rocky, bumpy roads and steep hills are perfect cycling terrain.

Mountain Bikers of Beijing, founded in August 2000, has gathered 160-plus members. At least 20 people show up every weekend.

"Tired of sitting in a closed space all week long, I am anxious to go out cycling to enjoy the natural environment every weekend. This is not at all like cycling in the city," said Qi Xin, an editor working for a local TV station.

Statistics show that 60 percent of bike sales last year came from lightweight bikes and mountain bikes.

China will continue to preserve the title "Kingdom of bikes," but may interpret it in a new way as increasing entertainment and health value rather than just transport alone, said Wang Feng, a member of the organization.

(Xinhua News Agency December 22, 2003)

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