Beijing must promote policies to get people back on their bikes
In just three decades, bicycles have gone from being the vehicle of the everyman in Beijing to a possession of the poor. They are looked down upon by the car-crazy populace, being seen as a reminder of the past, when life was simple and unsophisticated. Yet as roads become more clogged with pollution-spewing traffic, there is every need for mindsets to change. But only through government-driven policies will that happen.
While authorities have put in a network of bicycle lanes beside roads and introduced a bike-sharing programme focused on subways and bus stations, use continues to decline. Bicycles made up 63 per cent of transport in 1986, but now account for just 15 per cent. Much of that has to do with the social status of owning a car and the rapid expansion of cities. But there is also the understandable reason that riding bikes in the capital comes with a good measure of risk.
Bike lanes are often blocked by parked vehicles, while a disregard of traffic signals and rules by some motorists make cycling dangerous. A lack of parking places for bicycles also makes ownership a challenge; it is not uncommon for riders to report damage or theft. Then there is Beijing's infamous smog, which is most harmful at street level.
Bicycle-riding is a healthy and environmentally friendly activity. But enticing Beijingers away from four wheels and onto two requires authorities seeing bicycles as an integral part of urban transport planning. That was the conclusion of a report released in May by the Dutch consultancies Ecofys and Royal HaskoningDHV and the China Academy of Transportation Sciences. Their recommendations include high-quality bicycle routes and parking facilities, and upgrading and extending the public bicycle-sharing system.
The municipal government has been given the recommendations but has yet to respond. A starting point would be a high-profile campaign promoting bicycling followed by concerted policies. But a change will come only when citizens recognise there are alternatives to the car culture.