Cycle of misery on congested roads

08:28, September 17, 2010      

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A taxi driver blocks a bicycle lane with his cab to pick up a passenger in downtown Beijing. Cyclists say it is a common sight and complain inconsiderate drivers and the increase in faster electric bikes have made the streets a more dangerous place to ride. Transport experts say bikes are being 'squeezed off the roads' in China's major cities and have urged authorities to protect riders' rights. Zou Hong / China Daily

When Yan Bing pulls into the parking lot outside her office building in downtown Beijing every morning, she is one of only a few who is on two wheels.

Although most of her colleagues commute by car, the 27-year-old has stuck with pedal power since she was in junior high school. However, even she is debating whether to continue her daily battle with the capital's traffic.

"You can avoid congestion on a bike. It's convenient and also healthy exercise," said the junior official with the Xicheng district government. "The problem is the traffic is terrible."

Despite efforts by cities across China to get more people back onto bicycles, experienced cyclists like Yan say motorists and urban planners are ignoring their interests and endangering their lives.

"Apart from the fact there are more electric bikes shuttling along the bicycle lanes and breaking the rules of the road, many cars and vans also cut into the lanes or park there, which is dangerous," said Yan.

Roughly 63 percent of commuters traveled by bicycle in Beijing in 1986. Today, that number is already below 18 percent, while the amount of cars on the capital's roads has rocketed from 77,000 in 1978 to 4.3 million as of last May.

Forty percent of cyclists who responded to a survey published on the Beijing Transportation Research Center website said they are unhappy with conditions on the roads, while many have already quit the saddle due to safety concerns.

Data from the National Bureau of Statistics shows 712 cyclists were killed and another 3,114 injured in road traffic accidents nationwide in 2008.

"Bike riders have become a disadvantaged group," said Duan Liren, a professor at Chang'an University and former deputy director-general of the Beijing traffic management bureau. "They're being slowly squeezed off the roads."

Since the 1990s, the boom in automobile sales nationwide has resulted in routes becoming clogged with cars, posing a tough puzzle for urban planning officials. Unfortunately for cyclists, the preferred solution in many cities has been to narrow or even remove bicycle lanes from roads to make more room for the increased traffic.

In some areas of Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province, lanes have been moved onto sidewalks and are just 1 meter wide, leaving little room to maneuver.

Bicycle routes are also noticeably missing from the blueprints of many newly designed or completed urban expressways and main thoroughfares.

"Whenever I hit an expressway or a cloverleaf junction (a two-level interchange), I can't use it," said Yan. "I have to take a detour."

Many roads and bridges are also no-go zones for bicycles. In Wuhan, capital of Hubei province and Central China's largest city, cycling is permitted on just one of its seven Yangtze River crossings.

A spokesperson for the city's traffic management bureau said she did not know when or why the ban was implemented.

Two of three cross-Yangtze bridges are also blocked to two-wheeled traffic in Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu province, although officials there said it is to protect cyclists' safety.

"Governments need to adjust this preference for motor vehicles over pedestrians and bicycles," said Zhao Jie, director of the Chinese Academy of Urban Planning and Design's transport research institute.

Changing lanes

According to plans released by the Beijing transport authority, a network of bicycle-only lanes is to be constructed using hutong within the Second Ring Road, as well as in the Central Business District and many new residential areas.

Engineers now be devising ways of linking separate sections of the bicycle lanes interrupted by bus links and other roads.

Several cities in the United States, such as New York and Los Angeles, are also building more bicycle networks.

Meanwhile, in London, capital of England, the first two bicycle highways - 1.5 meters wide and painted bright blue - were officially opened on July 19 to mark the launch of the country's Cycle Revolution project.

"We need to learn from those countries that mark bicycle lanes with different colors to underline the rights of riders," said Wu Hongyang, deputy director of the Chinese Academy of Transportation Sciences' urban transport research center.

Work on the special routes has already started in some areas, such as near Beijing's Lama Temple. Outside are several guardrails marking a 2-meter-wide bicycle-only lane.

However, parking places for bicycles continue to dwindle, which experts say has increased the risk of theft.

Although most older supermarkets, office buildings and subway and bus stations have areas for storage, the requirement is often forgotten in today's modern constructions, said Zhao.

As a result, cyclists are forced to leave their bicycles on the roadside or nearby strips of land that are unsupervised, making them easy prey for crooks.

More than 2 million bicycles were reported stolen or missing across China in 2007, according to the latest available data from the Ministry of Public Security.

Beijing transport authorities say they plan to build more bicycle storage facilities, which they hope will create better links with subway and bus services.

"If public transport does not take passengers door to door, then they could finish the last kilometer by bike," Wang Yongqing, vice-chairman of the Beijing committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, told media last month.

Trading up

China is historically known as the "Kingdom of Bicycles", yet following the country's opening up and the steady increase in the average salary, many people have swapped two wheels for four.

When bikes ruled the road in 1986, about 40 percent of cyclists had to travel more than 45 minutes to reach their destination, said professor Duan.

"The common accepted range for commuting by bicycle is only half an hour, though," he said, which explains why so many people quit riding as soon as they could afford a car.

Take the Volkswagen Santana, the best-selling car in China, with more than 3 million sold so far. When the model made its debut in 1983, urban per capita monthly disposable income in Beijing was 49 yuan, putting its 200,000-yuan price tag far out of reach of most people.

However, the city's urban per capita monthly disposable income now tops 2,228 yuan ($332), while to drive away in a brand new Santana costs just 100,000 yuan.

"The living standard has been improved and people have become lazy," said Jiang Shengqi, who manages a bicycle rental point outside one of the entrances to Lama Temple subway station in Beijing. "People are now more likely to buy electric bikes."

About 30 percent of all journeys made in 36 key cities in 2008 were made by bicycle, according to a study led by Wu Hongyang. To boost that figure, promotions have been launched across China to raise awareness of the positive impact cycling has on the environment and an individual's health.

Among the biggest initiatives is Car-free Day, which is organized by the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development. It will be observed for the third time with events in 112 Chinese cities on Sept 22.

In Beijing, less than 40 percent of all car journeys are less than 5 kilometers, according to Beijing Transportation Research Center.

Li Bingren, chief economist for the ministry, said the average cyclist can reach speeds of up to 14 km/h, making bicycles a far more efficient and "green" form of transport for short and medium distances.

As commuters spread further out into the suburbs and satellite towns, promoting bicycle use could be crucial to easing traffic congestion and reducing carbon emissions.

With this in mind, many cities have attempted to become more bicycle-friendly. However, early efforts to boost rental services hit problems when the expected boom in business failed to materialize, causing many firms to fold.

"The profit margins are too low to maintain a business," said Bai Xiuying, manager of Bei Ke Lan Tu, the first bicycle rental company in Beijing, opening in 2005. The company hit a peak during the Olympic Games in 2008, when it had 200 rental shops offering more than 8,000 bicycles. Today, only 12 shops remain.

Beijing transport officials have announced plans to actively promote rental services outside selected subway stations along Line 4 and Line 5. Rental points will be set up every 500 meters and, by 2012, it is hoped commuters and tourist will have access to 20,000 bicycles at 1,000 sites.

"We're confident about the future, and that's why we've made an additional investment of 10 million yuan (in the business)," added Bai.

Authorities in Hangzhou, a picturesque tourist destination in Zhejiang province, introduced rental stations in 2008. Anyone aged 16 to 70 has access to up to 50,000 bicycles parked at 2,000 stations across the city - and the ride is free if the bicycle is returned in an hour.

Rental points are found within every 300 meters in the downtown area and have proved so popular that the service attracts an average of 250,000 users a day.

By Gao Qihui, China Daily


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