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Bicycles in Beijing

In the 1980s, as China launched its pivotal economic reforms, eight out of every 10 Beijingers used bicycles as their primary mode of transport and the capital city had some of the world’s best bike lanes.   Beijing was known as the “bicycle kingdom”. Bikes along with pedestrians flowed together through intersections like a fish moving through water.  Today, less than two out of 10 Beijing residents own a bike. 

What happened is that China overtook the United States as the world’s largest automobile market in 2009, according to Xinhua, the state owned news agency.  That year, China’s car sales totaled roughly 14 million, which was a 46% surge from 2008, according to China’s Association of Automobile Manufacturers. The country stepped into the limelight that year by hosting the Summer Olympic Games and the love affair with the automobile has only increased.

In Beijing, some four million bikes now compete for road space with more than two million cars. Taking a quick glance at the newly widened boulevards, overpasses and ring roads the capital clearly shows which means of transportation has been getting priority.  Beijing more and more is just another traffic-clogged city. Its bike lanes are rapidly filling with parked cars, motorized rickshaws, and strolling pedestrians.

To many Chinese, bikes are now for losers. The iconic Beijing bicycle is a sorry one-gear affair with a metal basket on the front which breaks so regularly that every street corner seems to have a makeshift fix-it stand.  Once commonplace images of thousands of cyclists ringing their bells at Beijing intersections have been replaced by mammoth traffic jams and blaring horns, as the city's increasingly affluent middle classes embrace the automobile.

In 2004 Beijing cancelled its bicycle registration requirements, a move viewed by the state press as highlighting the nation's fully fledged entry into "car society" and the demise of the bicycle as a "transportation tool." The bike has been downgraded from one of the most significant family purchases some 20 years ago to a cheap machine used mainly by the poor.

Cars have become king – certainly in status – especially for wealthy city residents. "There is a quote: ‘I would rather cry in a BMW than smile on a bike,'" says Jinhua Zhao, an urban planning professor at the University of British Columbia who's conducting a study of cycling in Beijing. His study indicates that car use has grown 15 percent a year for the last ten years.  The loss of a bike culture is a shame, says Shannon Bufton, the Australian-born founder of an NGO called Smarter Than Car. "It’s like Venice and gondolas. They go together, Beijing and the bike." he says.

Bufton's solution? Transform the bicycle into a luxury item, like the Chanel bag, the Gucci shoes, and the Maserati car. That way, the Chinese would want to own and ride them to show they've reached the middle class.  Bufton notes that when he first started Smarter Than Car in 2010, “I gave a lot of lectures about sustainable cities and about how positive the bike was for society,” he says. “And the Chinese people said to me, ‘Well, yeah, we know that, but we just started getting interested in the car. We want to drive cars."

But is the city of 17 million ready for cars to dominate?  Perhaps not, as Beijing’s air quality continues to be poor.  Liu Xiaoming, the director of the Municipal Communications Commission, said in a Xinhua that the government will “revise and eliminate” regulations that discourage bicycle use and impose greater restrictions on car drivers.  

With road congestion and air pollution ever worsening, local officials are attempting to bring back Beijing’s once-thriving bicycle culture by offering a share-hire scheme, similar to those seen in Europe.   "This bike-hire system is aimed at resolving the problem of getting around the city for people needing to travel short distances," says Guo Yun, vice head of the citizens' service center in the Chaoyang district.

Unlike other major cities such as Shanghai, Beijing refused to consider such a move until a few years ago.  Just ahead of the 2008 Olympic Games, it took a series of measures to reduce traffic and improve air quality, including the banning of each car from the roads for one day a week. Those restrictions remain in place.

Now, Beijing has a new plan, with the goal of putting 25 % of the city's 17-million people on bicycles by 2015.  The bike-hire system is part of that plan. Users apply for a swipe card, which they can use to access 100 bicycles at neighborhood kiosks near subway stations and key residential buildings.   The first 20 hours of use are free. After that, a fee of 200 yuan must be paid to get another card.  By 2015, authorities say they hope to have about 1,000 kiosks offering 50,000 bikes for rent.

The government also plans to restore bicycle lanes that were torn down, as well as to build more parking lots for bicycles at bus and subway stations to encourage additional cycling.  Also an improvement: The city will make more bikes available for rent to defray the cost of owning a bike and allay fears of bicycle theft, a rampant problem in the city.

The battle of the bikes is however far from won. Previous bicycle-hire schemes failed, and in a fast-growing China, cars are more than a means of transport -- they are a status symbol and a sign of economic success.

Click active hyperlinks to read more about the rise of the automobile as a pure status symbol in China’s emerging middle class.

Sources: The Guardian; Bloomberg Report, AP Wire, other internet

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