The one-on-one confrontation between a frustrated cyclist and a motorist in a Beijing bicycle lane was unremarkable. But when a blogger posted pictures of the incident on the internet last month, it became a national rallying cry for commuters on two wheels. The female cyclist, apparently an expatriate, stood in the middle of the cycle lane with her bike, refusing to budge for the car, before the bike was pushed away by the motorist. The woman's identity remains a mystery but the car owner was forced to apologise on national television after a chatroom-fuelled furore erupted over the rights of cyclists. Cyclists and motorists are at war in Beijing and other major cities as China transforms itself from the kingdom of bicycles to the kingdom of cars. The Beijing Youth Daily ran a whole page on Thursday on the rights of cyclists and their situation in Beijing, which highlights the significance of the issue. Despite its environmental and health benefits, bicycle riding is losing out in popularity and government influence to the growing number of cars crowding city streets. In 1993, the average Beijing household of 3.6 people owned two bicycles, according to official data, and, although the city now has two bikes for every three people, only about one quarter of them are used every day. In contrast, car ownership has grown 22 per cent a year since the 1980s to the point where Beijing has an estimated 2.8 million vehicles. In the Netherlands, bicycles account for more than half of the country's transport, while in Germany the central government allocates Euro100 million (HK$1.04 billion) a year for bicycle lanes. British authorities are paving 10,000km of bike lanes over the next six years, the Beijing Youth Daily reports. But as European cities encourage residents to rediscover pedal power, mainland metropolises are rolling out the bitumen for car-centred transport systems. Peking University sociologist Zheng Yefu says the oft-cited claims that higher car ownership is a sign of higher living standards courtesy of a booming economy are a deceit. He says it is a burden, not an asset. 'All the talk about GDP is a lie. You do earn more, but you have to spend more too,' Professor Zheng says. 'Encouraging private car purchasing is to steal time from people ... Time is life itself. And the amount of space for each person becomes less and less, and cannot increase.' He says overseas studies indicate that car owners in America spend four hours a day driving and maintaining the vehicle but bicycle riding and public transport take less time. Roads and car parks also consume valuable space, he says, up to half of the available land in Los Angeles. Hu Huizhe, from the environmental non-government organisation Friends of Nature, told the newspaper that bikes were the most suitable transport in the capital and had the edge over cars during rush hours. 'The average speed of motor vehicles is 8-12km/h during rush hour, but the usual speed of bicycles is 15km/h.' According to official data, bicycles accounted for 31.5 per cent of traffic in Beijing in 2004, and walking and cycling will remain major transport means in the future, according to 2004-2020 plans for the capital authorised by the State Council. While cyclists are still the majority in China, they must contend with poor legal protection, social discrimination and unsympathetic city planning. An ongoing China Central Television survey has found that of the 5,500 people questioned so far, more than 85 per cent thought the rights of cyclists were largely ignored in Beijing, with lane encroachment by cars and trucks the most frequent violation. They also must deal with the physical threat posed by cars, a danger Beijing student Wang Lan knows firsthand. She has stopped riding her bike since she was hit by a speeding Audi two years ago. 'I received 200 yuan from the driver - not even enough to replace my crumbled bike,' Ms Wang says. The Beijing Traffic Management Bureau says that in 2001 one cyclist died on the city's roads every two days and 200 people died in accidents between motor vehicles and bicycles from January 2004 to July last year. Nationally, pedestrians and cyclists are the most frequent victims of traffic accidents. A compulsory driver's third-party insurance scheme to cover compensation for a motor vehicle accident was introduced in 2004. But lawyer Li Hongsheng from the China Traffic Accident website - a platform to connect traffic accident victims with legal advocates - says the clauses are ambiguous and not strong enough. 'The indemnity is too low - the compensation is no more than 60,000 yuan altogether,' Mr Li says. The risk to cyclists increases when motorists try to circumvent traffic jams by taking over bicycle lanes, with the encouragement of urban planners and authorities. In Beijing and many other cities, bicycle lanes have been divided into two parts, with one part becoming the side roads for motorists. Even so, it is common for motorists to park their cars on the bicycle lanes along the kerb, posing even bigger dangers to cyclists. Environmentalist Liang Congjie , a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), says that in some cases planners do not even allot space for cycle lanes. Mr Liang submitted a proposal to this year's CPPCC session for formal acknowledgment of the rights of cyclists, something that became an even more personal issue after he was hit by a car this year. Peking University's Professor Zheng says cyclists should also get more social respect. He tried to get into the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse seven years ago for a conference but was told to leave his bike at the gate. Inside, cars filled the courtyard. The lack of secure bike parks is a big problem for cyclists so many have turned to fold-up models. An even bigger deterrent to cycling is the city's approach to urban planning. Beijing's urban sprawl is expanding but its major areas are still downtown, concentrated within the second ringroad. 'Most people choose not to ride bicycles simply because Beijing is too large,' says commuter Wang Qiang. But there is cause for optimism. The Beijing Bike Carnival has become an annual celebration of all things two-wheeled and Friends of Nature has tried to lift grassroots awareness of cycling, all with little government support.