Bicycle-sharing, infrastructure make cycling a popular choice in China

On a May morning, in the Jianguomen area in the heart of Beijing, a father was teaching his son how to ride a bicycle, a mother and son duo came and parked their bicycles at a designated area, and a college student locked his bike using his smartphone after reaching his destination.

“I use shareable bicycles every morning to go to my college. It’s easy and cheaper compared to cabs and is also environmentally friendly,” said Zhang Yi Fei, 23.

Mr. Zhang is not alone and this trend is not limited to Jianguomen.

Across Beijing, people riding blue, yellow and green bicycles are hard to miss and one can see dozens of bikes, at times hundreds, parked outside metro stations. These shareable bicycles belonging to three different private companies have made cycling hassle-free and popular.

One can unlock a bicycle by scanning a QR code using a mobile app, ride it and park it at a different stand and pay using the same app.

For example, from Jianguomen metro station to Ritan Park, which is less than 2 km, there are at least five cycle stands. It is 1.5 yuan (around Rs. 17) for a 30-minute ride and you can also take unlimited monthly or annual passes for as little as 17 and 200 yuan, respectively

Liu Daizong, East Asia Director of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), an international organisation that works with governments to design and implement transport and urban development systems, said he cycles to and from work every day using shareable bicycles.

“It takes me about 45 minutes to ride 10 km to work in the morning and it is one of the best ways to commute in Beijing and it is a good exercise, too. Increasing number of people are using cycles in Beijing and people’s mindset towards cycling is also changing,” Mr. Liu said.

Infrastructure push

The popularity of cycling is not just because of bicycle-sharing, but also due to the infrastructure provided for cyclists. In Beijing, there are separate bicycle lanes in most parts of the city. These lanes are marked on the main road by intermittent broad red stripes on the right side of the road or large white signs of cycle.

The government has built a 6.5-km dedicated three-lane bicycle track in the northwest part of the city, which is 6 metres wide. About 3 km of this is an elevated bicycle lane that runs over the main roads.

It connects the Huilongguan area, where housing is comparatively cheaper, with the Shangdi area, which hosts many technology companies.

In another part of the city, there are separate traffic lights for cycles and they turn green before other vehicles get a green signal, making it easier for cyclists. Mr. Liu, of the ITDP, said it is being run on a pilot basis.

Not just Beijing

Cycle lanes are not limited to Beijing. In different cities of Fujian and Hainan, two coastal provinces in the southeast and south of China, bicycle-sharing is picking up and cycle lanes are seen.

But there are problems, too. An increasing number of electric scooters/bikes use the cycle lanes and whoosh past cyclists at higher speeds.

In Xiamen, a city in Fujian, cycle tracks were seen on the sidewalks and not on the main road like in Beijing. Sometimes the tracks were not marked separately on the sidewalks, leading to pedestrians, cycles, and electric bikes, sharing the same space.

In Quanzhou, a smaller city of Fujian, there were cycle tracks on the road and shareable bicycles. But without a subway network like Beijing and Xiamen, very few people were seen using shareable bicycles in the city.

Due to differences in social and economic backgrounds, there is a significant disparity in the levels of bicycle ridership and development between cities in northern and southern China, according to the ITDP.

Bumpy ride

Interestingly, China’s bicycle journey over the years has not been a smooth one.

“In the 1960s, owning a bicycle means you were rich and it was like owning a car today,” said Mr. Liu. But by the 1980s, it would not be uncommon to see thousands of cyclists, rather than cars, crowd the streets of major cities during the rush hour commute, and China was often recognised as the ‘Kingdom of Bicycles’, according to the ITDP.

“But in the early 1990s, the number of buses on the roads increased and in the later half of 1990s, the number of cars also grew. The government encouraged people to buy cars, as the government thought it would lead to economic progress. China was trying to adopt the U.S. model of economic development,” Mr. Liu said.

A 2004 article published by the state-run China Daily, titled “China ends bicycle kingdom as embracing cars”, speaks about how more people were buying cars.

Mr. Liu said that slowly the number of cycles fell and people started associating cars with economic progress and success, while cycles were seen as only for the poor. “In Beijing, cars started to drive on the bicycle lanes and no one was monitoring them. The overall experience of cycling became bad. In my hometown Nanjing, authorities put the cycle lane in the pedestrian way,” added Mr. Liu.

But air pollution and traffic congestion became a problem in many cities. “When China hosted the Olympics in 2008, factories were shut down for a month in Beijing to show the world that the air was clean,” Mr. Liu said.

After the Olympics, people started demanding permanent solutions and the government also started seriously looking for solutions. “After Xi Jinping became President in 2012, the government took many concrete steps and pumped in more money and cycles were seen as a solution to both the problems,” he added.

But in the early 2010s, bicycle-sharing started becoming popular. By 2016, there were too many private companies providing shareable bicycles. Bicycles were dumped in the streets, and in 2017, the government stepped in to regulate them.

“By the end of 2017, 90% of these private companies went bankrupt and what we are seeing now are the ones who survived and the second generation of shareable bicycles,” Mr. Liu said.

Mr. Liu said people’s mindset is also changing and since COVID-19, more people have taken up cycling. Bicycles are also part of Mr. Xi’s “Healthy China 2030” policy.

“China still needs more infrastructure for bicycles and can learn from cities such as Copenhagen and Paris. But China can also be a model for many other countries,” he said.

Lessons for India

In Delhi, there are hardly any bicycle lanes, an issue which has been highlighted over the years by urban planners and cyclists, and people rarely use bicycles for last mile connectivity.

Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a research and advocacy organisation in Delhi, said that though the idea of bicycle sharing has taken root in many Indian cities, it is still in the initial stages.

Ms. Roychowdhury said that in Delhi, cycle lanes are fragmented small stretches that make up just 1% of the total road network. “It is largely for beautification and doesn’t meet the requirements of a commuter,” she said.

“In India, mostly those from lower income groups cycle. Not many people cycle by choice, as the roads are unsafe for cyclists. Safety is a key factor when you decide whether you should cycle or not,” she added.

Ms. Roychowdhury said there are policies in Delhi and other cities for including cycles and pedestrians in urban planning, but those are not being implemented properly.

“We talk about sustainable transport, but government agencies are focussing mostly only on the main carriageway, which is meant for vehicles and not for cycles and pedestrians.” She stressed that promoting cycles and walking is crucial for solving air pollution in Delhi and other Indian cities.

“Prioritising walking and cycling are the most fundamental zero emission strategies. But because of the obsession with car-centric planning, investments for walking and cycling are not happening and the infrastructure for it is not developing,” she added. 

(The correspondent is in China at the invitation of the China Public Diplomacy Association)

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