In days gone by, talk of China would conjure up sepia images of streets crowded with men on bicycles. Times have changed.
During the swinging 60′s and 70′s, the must-have items for a marriage in China were a wrist watch, sewing machine and bicycle. Now there are cheap rip-off watches everywhere, someone else does the sewing and almost everyone wants an automobile. Yes, the monarchy of the ‘Kingdom of Bicycles’ has been overthrown.
Back in 1949 when The People’s Republic of China was formed, the party in Beijing opted for the bicycle as the people’s vehicle and started a massive production drive, making two wheels and a chain a big part of their first Five-Year plan. Pedal power took off.
Sixty-two years, and some quite significant changes later, you still see a few peddlers ferrying around massive loads of cargo, quite a few electric bikes zipping down the footpath, a good few folding bikes and a handful of those old-school, army-green postal bikes. But when I first arrived in Beijing, one of my biggest surprises was that there were a lot more cars than bicycles.
In the past 10 years, the number of Beijingers getting to work by bike has dropped from 60% to less than 20%. Most of the pedals have been replaced by accelerators. The number of cars in Beijing increased by a whopping 770,000 last year, taking the total number to 4.7m – that’s more than twice as many cars as bikes.
This year, a global survey by IBM ranked Beijing up with Mexico City as having the world’s worst commute – 84% of survey respondents said they spent an average of an hour or more on the road in each direction every day.
It’s not just Beijing, most cities in China are squeezing out cycle lanes to make more room for cars – some cities such as Shenzen, have removed bike lanes altogether. Automobile sales have grown at an average rate of more than 20 percent every year for past decade. Over the last 2 years, car sales have nearly doubled. In 2000, China purchased just 1/10 of the quantity of cars the United States did. By 2009, China had overtaken them to become the world’s largest automobile market. In 2010, the Chinese bought almost twice as many cars.
Some say the car movement really took hold when SARS hit China in 2003; Almost overnight, anyone who could ducked into the sterile sanctuary of an automobile. And, as the money keeps rolling in, more and more people are opting for wagons.
It’s understandable that most Chinese want a car. Cities are growing further and further out and the roads linking them, wider and less safe for cycling. Most places in China are also bitterly cold in the winter and ridiculously hot in the summer, which makes for pretty unpleasant cycling. Many find the car is the most convenient way to get around – metros are jammed full and a lot of cars have drivers so the passengers can focus on work as they labour in gridlock.
And even with all this growth, the car market in China is still relatively untapped. The ratio of private cars to people in China is still low – by the end of 2010 it was 7 cars per 100 people, lower than the global average of 12 and much less than the United State’s 75.
While it is a bit rich as a westerner to hope that China doesn’t get too overrun with cars, I believe more can be done to promote alternatives to cars. Some initiatives are already underway. New car numbers have been restricted in some of the bigger cities, underground metros are being built everywhere and there are some interesting proposals such as this massive bus that straddles other vehicles, effectively driving over them to help deal with the transport headache.
I think the lowest-hanging fruit is returning to that first Five-Year plan and bringing back the humble bike. It is pretty obvious that decreasing bike lanes for more car lanes will not reduce traffic – it will just discourage more people from bikes and into cars. Increasing bike lanes has been exceedingly positive for cities such as Copenhagen, London and Portland, Oregon which crisscrossed the city with cycle lanes for the cost of one mile of highways. There is a lot of money being thrown around in China on urban improvements, and just a small percentage put towards biking facilities would make Chinese cities much nicer places to live.
On the subject of bikes…
Okay, sorry to go off on a tangent, but here’s my rant. Although it’s impractical for everyone to sell the car and buy a bicycle, I genuinely believe a lot more people in the west should be on their bikes. It’s not just a hippy thing; everyone who’s complaining about the economy could do a little something to play their part – ride, don’t drive.
Here’s a few reasons why you should be peddling:
- You’ll be fitter, look better and be happier overall
- You can exercise at times you’d otherwise be frustrated in traffic
- Fitter, happier people are generally more productive – which will help the economy
- Healthy people go to hospital less – again helping the economy
- There’ll be less need to spend money on building bigger, uglier roads
- There’ll be less traffic jams – increasing productivity
- There’ll be less oil imported, which will help your country’s balance of payments
- Given the price of fuel, the chances are you’ll have more money in your pocket to spend on useful things
- Obviously there’ll be less pollution
- With less demand for oil, there could conceivably be less wars
- Unfortunately areas swimming in oil such as the Middle East may not have as much money to go around.
If you do have to keep driving your car, truck, whatever, please spare a thought to how the cyclists are contributing and treat them like they deserve to be treated – like precious jewels. Give them lots of room and a smile as you drive by. Bring back the bike!
Some helpful Chinese terms to help you get around China:
nàr yuǎn bu yuǎn? … is it far to there?
zǒu lù kě yǐ ma? … is it possible to walk?
kuài yī diǎn … speed up a little
màn yī diǎn … slow down a little
nǐ xǐ huan bu xǐ huan qí zì xíng chē? … do you like riding bikes?
wǒ hěn xǐ huan qí mǎ … I really like riding horses