COMMENTARY: Backpedal to the Future

China’s Strength is in its Bicycles

When I was in college, I dreamed of exploring China by bicycle. As an avid cyclist and student of Mandarin, I was elated by the idea of riding elbow-to-elbow with men and women, young and old, amid a sea of cyclists in the one-and-only Kingdom of Bicycles. My first visit to China, a semester abroad in 1999, was to Harbin, a city bordering Siberia, famous for its annual ice festival. No biking in the biting cold of winter. So, naturally, when I arrived to Beijing in May 2006 for a summer internship, getting a bike was my top priority.

Bikes, cars and pedestrians compete for road access in Beijing.Jme McLean

My first short journey proved to be more daunting than any I’ve encountered on two wheels—scarier than the steep pitches of San Francisco’s busy streets and more life-threatening than the mountain bike trails lining Utah’s thousand-foot redrock canyon walls. Negotiating the streets of Beijing, I found myself struggling through tides of traffic, dusty air pollution and choking exhaust fumes.

Biking in Beijing is downright unhealthy. With more than 1,000 new cars on the roads every day and drastic construction underway for the 2008 Olympics, fewer people are biking to get around. Dust and particulate matter from construction and industry together with the toxic emissions of 2.6 million vehicles have transformed a practical exercise and enjoyable commuting option into a gamble with respiratory disease. Add the danger of crowded traffic and novice drivers, and biking quickly loses its appeal.

Lately, it seems that everyone in Beijing is clamoring to upgrade from two wheels to four. As China’s economy grows and urbanites find more disposable income in their pockets, owning a car has become a widely attainable social goal. Private passenger car ownership in recent years has grown at exponential rates, quadrupling from 100,000 vehicles in 1995 to 435,000 in 2000, and then soaring to a staggering 1.4 million in 2005. Meanwhile, bicycle ownership dropped from 190 to 114 bikes per 100 households in the decade between 1995 and 2005.

In shared taxis to meetings this summer, my 45-year-old coworker often interrupted his own complaints about Beijing’s traffic to "ooh" and "ah" at cars idling alongside us. He had commuted by bicycle nearly every day for 20 years. Although he enjoyed bicycling, he eagerly anticipated his coming driver’s exam and spending his savings on a new car.

His enthusiasm reminded me of my own desperate desire for a car at age 15. A car meant freedom and independence; getting behind the wheel was a rite of passage. But with its long history battling pollution, its growing gap between rich and poor, and its skyrocketing population, China should be particularly skeptical of the automobile, especially in light of America’s relationship with cars and oil.

Here in the U.S., we clutch our purses as we watch gas prices rise. We live in a nation of interlocking freeways, congested city streets, and expanses of natural beauty cut by sprawling asphalt, where the ability to secure good jobs, homes, and resources often rests on an individual’s ownership of a personal car. Meanwhile, our dependence on cars has made us prisoners to increasingly scarce natural resources and the nations that provide them.

And "car privileges" threaten our health. Cars are the leading source of air pollution in the United States, increasing our risk for respiratory disease, impaired cardiovascular function and cancer. Our time on the road is also linked to diseases commonly associated with sedentary lifestyles, such as obesity and diabetes. These trends hold true even for our children, who are less likely to walk or bike to school than they were fifty years ago.

On crowded Dongzhimen Street and others like it, bicycles have been pushed out in favor of high-speed cars.

Faced with an infrastructure designed around the automobile, our solutions for alleviating the burdens of a car-dependent nation are limited. But China is in a unique position to bypass the mistakes of reckless car culture. Its accelerating economic growth, current stage of infrastructure development, and rich history of bicycling offer ideal conditions for creating a healthier future. However, Beijing is quickly bypassing those strengths—an abundance of bike lanes, a culture that widely accepts the rights of the cyclist, and a form of transportation and exercise accessible to young, old, rich and poor alike.

China must learn from the mistakes of the West by leapfrogging to innovative technologies and upholding successful traditions. It can start with policies that promote bicycling, preserve and increase the quantity of bike lanes, and encourage safe bike and vehicle road-sharing. To mitigate the impact of increased car-ownership—an inevitable phenomenon for a country developing so rapidly—China can implement taxes and stricter sales regulations while eliminating subsidies on gasoline. Mandating low-emission vehicles (a process that is already underway) can force automakers interested in tapping China’s enormous market to develop greener technologies. Social marketing, like Beijing’s current campaign to reduce public spitting by 2008, can help China to challenge the association of car-ownership with sustainability.

Maintaining its bicycle-friendly heritage while promoting the production of cleaner, greener vehicles will help secure China’s place as a global leader. Backpedaling on its current imprudent transit policies can help this awakening dragon make great strides into the future.

JME MCLEAN is a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley.

CONTACT: Bike China; Beijing by Bicycle