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In Hangzhou, getting around is more fun on two wheels
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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 the West Lake, is no exception.

Under the city's plan, Hangzhou will have 2,000 service outlets offering 50,000 bicycles for rent by the end of the year. People will find one service outlet every 100 m downtown.

Under the city's plan, Hangzhou will have 2,000 service outlets offering 50,000 bicycles for rent by the end of the year. People will find one service outlet every 100 m downtown. 

Every day, about 460,000 motor vehicles, including 360,000 private cars, run in an endless stream along the streets of Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang province. About 50,000 vehicles are added to urban traffic flows each year. As a result, the average driving time from residential areas in the western part of the city to downtown offices has doubled from about 15 minutes two years ago to the present 30 minutes. During rush hours, it takes about 10 minutes to crawl over the 100-m bridge approach to access the overpass 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.

One morning in January, Li drove her roadster 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 that runs from the north to the south of Hangzhou. To her bewilderment, the traffic remained gridlocked for 10 minutes. Looking at her watch, she realized there were only 15 minutes left before she was due to chair a meeting in the office. Fidgeting in her car, Li was vexed at not being able to leave her vehicle 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.

After months of riding a bicycle, a journey that takes half an hour amid fresh air across lanes and along the lake, Li found herself refreshed in the office.

"Going ahead at full gallop on my bicycle while observing so many cars jammed on the Western Ring Road and Stadium Road, I was so excited and very often would simply want to whistle," said Li.

What made Li even happier was that she did not buy the bicycle herself. The bicycle comes from a public bicycle service company funded by the local government. Li could use it for free as her ride was far shorter than the one-hour time limit.

On May 1, 2008, Hangzhou municipal government began the public bicycle service program, with an initial 2,800 bicycles at 61 service outlets across downtown areas.

Li can easily find a bicycle at an outlet in her residential area. She takes a bicycle by swiping her Hangzhou resident card at a point of sale (POS) machine at the outlet, and returns the bicycle at another outlet near her office.

China used to be a "kingdom of bicycles". But today there are far fewer in metropolises, as affluent Chinese city dwellers have become increasingly fond of cars. At the end of 2008, China had around 650 million bicycles, including 80 million electric bicycles, and 65 million motor vehicles, according to the China Bicycle Association.

In addition to convenience, cars are regarded by many as a status symbol. In some cities, bicycle lanes have simply been abolished in many areas, making more room for cars.

But over the past year, public bicycles have become the most convenient means of transport for many Hangzhou residents like Li.

As the first of its kind in the country, the public bicycle leasing service program was introduced to Hangzhou a year ago to make bicycles a component of the city's public traffic mix.

'Final-kilometer puzzle'

As a means of solving the "final-kilometer puzzle" (you get on or off public transport close to your destination but have not yet completed the journey), public bicycles help realize a "seamless connection of bicycle-based slow-speed traffic with metro and bus-based public traffic facilities", said Huang Zhiyao, general manager of Hangzhou Public Transport Corporation (HPTC).

"Bicycles also reduce environmental pollution in our city," Huang pointed out.

Under the scheme, residents aged from 16 to 70 may hire and return public bicycles with their Hangzhou public transport IC cards or Hangzhou resident cards.

Tourists from other areas may apply for service cards at service outlets with their identity card and a 300 yuan deposit.

Under the provisions, public bicycles are used for free in the first hour, a period long enough to ride a bicycle around the West Lake.

Users are charged one yuan from the second hour to the third hour, two yuan from the third hour to the fourth hour, and three yuan from the fourth hour to the 24th hour.

Tourists were the first group of people to benefit from the scheme, as bicycles offer them an exciting and convenient means to tour the West Lake and other areas.

"I have traveled to Hangzhou with my family several times before. It was really a headache to find a space in parking lots in scenic areas. But renting a bicycle has no such problems. We can go wherever we want," said Liu Zhuo from Shanghai.

Cao Jing, a woman in her 20s from Beijing, who has been to Paris and Prague, said: "I love Hangzhou, it felt like meeting an old friend on my first visit here. The city has the quietness and elegance of European cities. Riding a bicycle along willow-lined lakes enables me to enjoy the charms of the city.

"The West Lake area has wonderful roads. It has a lane for bicycles, making it a pleasant experience to tour the lake on two wheels."

According to Lu Zhihong, deputy general manager of HPTC, each bicycle was hired 0.93 times on average each day in the first few months of the scheme's operation in 2008. The frequency was raised to 3.27 times in February and about five times in March. In April, the city added 2,400 bicycles, bringing the total number to 16,000.

But Hangzhou Municipal Government has set its sights on even greater things.

Under the city's plan, Hangzhou will have 2,000 service outlets offering 50,000 bicycles for rent by the end of the year. People will find one service outlet every 100 m downtown.

"Public bicycle outlets will become as common as public telephone booths along streets," said Lu.

Experts say the acceptance of public bicycles in Hangzhou is closely associated with the city's size and scenery.

"Hangzhou is far smaller in size and population than Beijing or Shanghai. This makes it feasible and realistic for people to ride bicycles. People are also willing to ride bicycles in this scenic city of rich cultural relics and an admirable climate," said Gong Weibin, a professor with the National School of Administration.

The idea of a bicycle-leasing service was borrowed from Paris.

In April 2008, HPTC and Hangzhou Public Transport Advertising Co Ltd jointly invested 5 million yuan to set up Hangzhou Public Bicycle Transport Service Development Co Ltd. It is responsible for buying bicycles, setting out service outlets, and employing staff.

Over the past year, it has made three major updates to improve its performance, according to proposals from residents and tourists, said Tao Xuejun, deputy general manager of the bicycle-leasing firm. The issues include such problems as users finding it difficult to find outlets to return the bikes to.

"In response to the proposals, we have simplified the mode of hiring and returning bicycles," said Tao, citing an example of how the service has been made more convenient.

(Xinhua News Agency June 1, 2009)

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