Can bicycles make a comeback?

0 CommentsPrint E-mail Xinhua, April 1, 2010
Adjust font size:

When Britain's Katie Melua sang "There are nine million bicycles in Beijing" in 2005, she had little idea that cyclists on the city's roads would account for only 18.1 percent of Beijing's 17 million population in 2009.

More than 80 percent of China's population used to pedal for transport, giving the country the title "Kingdom of Bicycles." But the country's opening-up and economic boom have led to booming private car sales and a big decrease in the number of bicycles.

Beijing was home to 4 million cars by the end of 2009, causing severe pollution and frequent traffic gridlock.

To ease the traffic and environment problems, the Beijing municipal government recommended bicycles as the preferred means of transport at the beginning of 2010, aiming to increase the proportion of cyclists to 23 percent by 2015.

"Bicycles have the advantages of low cost and energy efficiency. It is also healthy, and easier and quicker to shuttle through Beijing's hutongs (narrow lanes)," says Sima Xiaomeng,a Beijing political advisor and environment protection advocate.

In five years, 45 percent of the Beijing's population is expected to use public transport, 22 percent cars, and 8 percent taxis, according to the plan of the Beijing government.

Bicycle lanes, many of which have been eroded away to make room for cars and buses, are being restored to encourage cyclists. The first three pilot areas to restore bicycle lanes are Beijing's north Zhongguancun area, Central Business District (CBD) area in the east and Guangnei Street in the south, says Liu Xiaoming, director of the Municipal Communications Commission.

He added that the municipal government is now working on the design of proper cycle lanes and the safety standard. The government will also work to ease the shortage of secure bicycle parking.

The government will build more parking lots for bikes alongside bus and subway stations so that cyclists can easily transfer to public transport.

But skepticism about the likelihood of a return of Beijing's bicycle culture also rises. Beijing roads are generally seen as not cyclist-friendly, and, in some cases, downright dangerous.

"The current road design has little consideration for cycling. If I want to pedal across an overpass, I have to risk my life by riding among other vehicles, because there is no bicycle lane," says veteran Beijing cyclist Hu Li, 46.

Even cycling in the remaining few bicycle lanes can be fraught with risks.

"More than often, motorists cross the line to press me into a corner.Buses cut across, unloading passengers, so I have to hop off the bicycle and walk," says Bai Zhiyong, an east Beijing resident.

Too often bicycle lanes just become car parks.

Research by hundreds of advocates from Friends of Nature in 2008, a Beijing-based environment protection NGO, showed that only 18 cycle lanes in the capital meet safe standards of width, smoothness and clear separation from vehicle lanes. These were mainly located around parks. On main roads, cycle lanes all had the problems of mixed vehicle lanes.

Liu Chang, who works in Beijing's CBD for a foreign company, gave up his bicycle and bought a car in 2007 because he could no longer bear to carry his bicycle up to his sixth floor home everyday after returning from work.

"There is no bicycle parking place in my residential area, let alone staff who keep watch overnight. Cycling to me not fun, but a burden," he says.

"Although cycling is environmentally clean, it is not healthy for me, as I breathe more air polluted by cars when pedaling to work."

Urbanization has led to an increase in vehicle lanes and parking sites, while cycle lane and parking cites have diminished, which is a denial of the rights of cyclists, says Liang Congjie, a leading Chinese environment expert and founder of Friends of Nature.

He wants the cycle lanes to be at least 3.5 meters wide on major roads. Solid fences should separate vehicle and cycle lanes for the safety of cyclists.

Given the fairly long commuting distances for Beijing residents and the speed of bicycles, Prof. Duan Liren believes the advantages of cycling should be focused on distances of 5 to 7 km.

"Cycling can meet the demands of short distance transportation where the public transport network fails to reach," says Prof. Duan, an engineer from Beijing Bureau of Transportation Administration.

As a result, the Beijing government also promotes bicycle rentals at subway stations so residents can shuttle easily from home to subway stations.

By 2015, about 1,000 outlets will be offering 50,000 bikes for rent. More than 3,000 bicycle change places will be set up for the convenience of subway commuters.

But rental companies say they are losing money. At one bicycle rental outlet in Beijing's north Zhongguancun area, just 150 of the 1,200 bicycles available are constantly used.

"The business is not growing, and the cost is fairly high, and we don't have government funding. Currently, there are not many outlets, so the service is not that attractive," says Wang Yong, manager of Beike Lantu Public Bicycle Rental Company, one of the major bicycle rental companies in Beijing.

He admitted the company had invested more than 30 million yuan (4.4 million U.S. dollars) since 2005 with outlets reaching 100 at their peak. But last year they closed more than 10 outlets.

Bicycle rental requires a 400-yuan deposit and 100 yuan to use for a year. The other option is 5 yuan per hour and 20 yuan for a whole day.

"Bicycle rental should be included in the public transport system, and the government should support it both with beneficial policies and funding," says Guo Jifu, director from Beijing Transportation Development Research Center.

He suggested the municipal government could provide funding as it did for buses to lower the rental price or even offer free rental.

In early March, the first four free bicycle rental outlets were set up in east Beijing. The unmanned 24-hour outlets offer 100 bicycles for rent using a swipe card. Nearby residents can apply for the card in the community and they can use the bicycles for more than 20 hours for free.

If the target of 23 percent Beijing's population using bicycles and 45 percent buses and subway can be reached, says Sima Xiaomeng, more than 60 percent of Beijing's population would be free of cars, or at least use them less frequently.

"This would be a huge bonus for Beijing's air and roads," she says.

Print E-mail Bookmark and Share

Go to Forum >>0 Comments

No comments.

Add your comments...

  • User Name Required
  • Your Comment
  • Racist, abusive and off-topic comments may be removed by the moderator.
Send your storiesGet more from