In 1980, 80% of people in Beijing who commuted to work did so on a bicycle. Today, only 19.7% of commuters are choosing to bike. Some of these people have switch to mass transit due to major improvements in the subway and busses since 1980, but many are now driving cars, motorcycles, and mopeds. Beijing has set a goal of not just stemming the tide of bicyclists who are switching to motorized vehicles, but increasing the bicycling mode share for commute trips from 19.7% to 23% by 2030 .
To help people make the switch, Beijing is improving its bike lanes and bike parking, and creating a bike rental program that will supply 50,000 bikes by 2015. Bike lanes are being developed more strategically to serve subway stops and transit parks in recognition that many people live too far away from their place of employment to bike the entire distance .
But a growth in bicycling won’t happen just by improving infrastructure. A car may still be out of reach for most in Beijing, but a motorcycle of some sort is within reach of many, and can contribute to pollution even worse than some cars due to two stroke engines and other simplistic designs. Motorcycles are a poorly understood element in growing metropolises because they have never been a major transportation mode in western cities. A World Bank report from 1997 looked at trends in Italian and Taiwanese motorcycle ownership from 1950 to 1990 and in Italy, subcompact economy cars (Fiat) became widely available around the time that incomes started rising rapidly; the early 1960s. Incomes also started rising in Taiwan at that time, but Fiats were expensive to import and the urban density was higher, so cars didn’t become the dominant mode of transport during some very important formative decades for urban structure.
The report recognizes that these outcomes may be partially predicated on cultural and climactic differences, but speculates that mainland Chinese cities will have transportation trends more like Taiwan: motorcycle dominated .
Beijing appears to be heading closer to the Italian model, however. Despite all of the car and smog-choked pictures we’ve seen of Beijing, it is a city that still has 3.6 million vehicles registered, and a population nearing 20 million . Motorcycle/scooter/moped ownership rates are nearly impossible to come by because licensing and registration for them was very lax until recently. Even though car ownership rates aren’t very high yet, Beijing has been building highly auto-oriented infrastructure such as:
There is a tree-lined sidewalk, but the scale is so daunting that anyone not in a vehicle gets a loud and clear message “you don’t belong here.” But Beijing and other major cities in China have an issue Italy, Taiwan, and the rest of the world does not have: very tight controls on who can live where. 35.9% of Beijing’s residents have migrated there from somewhere else in China , and getting a Beijing residence permit is getting harder, forcing many to commute into the city for work or school every day. New measures to discourage more people from moving into the City sans residency permit include a bylaw forbidding the renting out of basements, and a regulation requiring each rental apartment room to accommodate two people at most. The non-resident workers must commute in from outlying areas, traversing a distance too great for someone who isn’t in perfect health and doesn’t have a modern road bike. (Beijing’s manufacturing sector employs 1.8 million people, 60% of whom do not have a Beijing residence permit) For these people, motorized transport of some sort can’t be avoided, but almost certainly doesn’t involve a personal car. This enforced sprawl/disconnect of work and home is part of the reason Beijing has astounding highways, and needs to be addressed at the policy level – no amount of enhanced bicycling facilities is going to convince a factory laborer to commute 15 miles each way if he can only afford a steel-framed single-speed bike circa 1989.
But for those who live and work in Beijing, various organizations are working on strategies to promote bicycling: attempting to make it cool, in a place where car ownership is still the ultimate status symbol. A campaign being promote by the China Communist Youth League Beijing Committee is promoting the right tool for the right situation called ‘3510’, suggesting people should walk when travelling within a distance of 3 kilometers, to cycle when traveling for 5 kilometers and to take public transportation for a trip of 10 kilometers . An NGO called “Smarter Than Car” has created “Beijing Bike Week”, which is similar to the Bike To Work Week/Month events around the US. Their biggest hurdle is overcoming the connotation of ‘bicycle’ with ‘low-class’:
The image of the bicycle is still ingrained as a vehicle that the old China was using to move around. There are a lot of people who believe the idea of riding a bike around the city is a good one, but very few are prepared to lose face and go out there and do it. The director of [Chinese NGO] , Li Bo, told me about an acquaintance, a successful business person, who decided to start riding his bike to work. He began getting calls from people asking if there was something wrong with his business and did he need to borrow money. So there is still a stigma attached to the bicycle.
As a resident of the Pacific Northwest I find it odd that people in China are actively trying to cultivate an almost elitist connotation to bicycling when we’re fighting that a little bit in order to promote it to the common man, but it sounds like a necessary hurdle in that situation.
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 World Bank. (1997). China’s Urban Transport Development Strategy (World Bank Discussion Paper No. 352) (p. 509). Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=YdjPjwjJlrUC&pg=PA51&lpg=PA51&dq=beijing+affordability+of+motorcycles&source=bl&ots=zWWgsBlePt&sig=d3SilgUhhHS_XKHuB92TcYRkS6M&hl=en&sa=X&ei=tZqaUcrkEKazigLe0oCACw&ved=0CD4Q6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=beijing%20affordability%20of%20motorcycles&f=false
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Deng Jingyin. (2012, January 13). Beijing residence permits updated. Global Times. International News. Retrieved fromhttp://www.globaltimes.cn/NEWS/tabid/99/ID/692022/Beijing-residence-permits-updated.aspx
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Full circle for bikes in Beijing? (n.d.). Retrieved May 21, 2013, fromhttp://www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/4796-Full-circle-for-bikes-in-Beijing-