The revival of bicycles in Beijing

13:08, January 28, 2010      

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Commuting in China's big cities is a daunting experience. The phrase "rush hour" takes on a whole new meaning, and an ominous one, in a city like Beijing which has 20 million residents and 4 million private cars. Congestion and pollution are serious problems.

To reduce traffic problems and pollution, Beijing authorities plan to encourage commuters to use bicycles rather then cars. Today 19.7 percent of Beijing residents ride bicycles, and the government hopes to raise the figure to 23 percent by 2015, Xinhua news agency reported on January 24.

At that time, public transportation will account for 45 percent of Beijing's traffic, while private and business cars will account for 22 percent. Taxis and other vehicles account for the rest.

The plan calls for setting up 1,000 bike-hire stations and more than 50,000 bicycles around metro and bus stations. It would cover most of the city and provide quick access to rental bikes.

Bicyclists who know their history consider the plan too modest. For decades, China was known as the "bicycle kingdom." In 1989, there were more than 4 million bicycles on Beijing roads and 60 percent of the residents used bicycles. Now gas-guzzling, fume-spewing autos in stalled traffic seem indispensable to modern life.

Promoting bicycles again will not be easy. The first concern is safety of cyclists as bicycle lanes have been edged out or phased out and bikes must use faster and more dangerous auto lanes.

Moreover, China's car makers are unlikely to yield to two-wheelers taking even a tiny slice of the market.

Overtaking the United States as the world's biggest auto market in 2009, China's car sales totaled 13.64 million, a 46.15 percent surge from 2008, according to China's Association of Automobile Manufacturers. As early as 2008, the industry contributed more than 8 percent to China's GDP, according to National Development and Reform Commission.

Another problem with the bicycle plan is convenience: many destinations in sprawling Beijing are not an easy or an hour's bike ride away. Many bike rental operators in Beijing say they are struggling to survive because few people need their services.

Despite all obstacles, encouraging bikes is a good idea. The plan could work. Take Denmark, a country that features bikes in its national tour guide books. The popularity of bikes was fostered by a conscious government decision to save energy in the first place. However small, a first step is a solid step.


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