Back on your bike

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 May, 2006, 12:00am

Residents are still in shock over the recent 25 per cent rise in taxi fares, from 1.6 yuan per kilometre to 2 yuan. It is a big jump, but a necessary one with the rising cost of fuel, and one can only hope that the overworked and underpaid drivers themselves will see some benefit.

But perhaps the move will also encourage people to get back in the saddle. Certainly, there are many reasons to do so.

Beijing's roads were built with cycle lanes as wide as a single carriageway for cars; the city is so flat that cycling takes less effort than walking; traffic congestion is so bad that it is much quicker to get round on two wheels; and there are so many cycle shops and bike repairmen on street corners that buying and maintaining an 'iron horse' is much cheaper and more convenient than using any other mode of transport.

But where, just five years ago, these lanes swarmed with cyclists, they are now often empty. At best, you will sometimes see a few peddlers wending their way through the city.

Once the bicycle was as much a symbol of China as the Great Wall or dragon dancing. But now it seems to have had its day.

Foreigners learning Chinese are always taught the phrase 'kingdom of bicycles' as an affectionate term for Beijing. Today, they must be wondering if they are in the right city.

It is believed that there may be anything up to 10 million cycles still on the city's streets but, apparently, their owners are using them much less frequently.

There are several reasons for this; it is not just down to the fact that many newly affluent Beijingers have managed to buy their own car.

In fact, so many people have moved out to the suburbs that their work places are too far away to use a bike every day.

People are also loath to subject their lungs to the pollution that, despite pledges for clean air in time for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, seems to be getting only worse.

It is also becoming increasingly dangerous. As the number of inexperienced drivers on the roads increases, so do the number of accidents.

But perhaps when people find they are being hit hard in their wallets, they will start to rediscover the benefits of two wheels.

The government, which encourages car ownership, is at last starting to realise that Beijing could be a better place if more people used their bikes and left their cars at home.

Realising that people have to commute much further than before, it approved the use of electric bikes at the beginning of the year, after a four-year ban.

Beijing desperately needs a solution to its snarled-up streets and choking air. Perhaps the bicycle's time has come again.