This article was originally published in The Oregonian on May 27, 2017 by Robert Gottlieb
Chinese commuters in Nanjing compete for space on the roadways (Photo courtesy of Simon Ng)
For 50 years, from 1949 until the 1990s, China was known as the “Kingdom of Bicycles.” Bikes were the primary transport mode, especially during the 1950s through the 1970s when the majority of the urban population was organized into danwei, or work units, that connected the workplace with housing, and facilitated the idea of short-distance travel.
When China transitioned to more of a market economy in the 1990s, bike use began to decline. However, bike production – especially for export – took off, thanks to China’s rapid growth of manufacturing centers. Chinese cities widened their streets as they became increasingly dominated by automobiles. Cities converted bike lanes to mixed-traffic service roads with fast-moving auto traffic, leading to an increase in bicycle fatalities even as overall bike use declined.
In the 1990s, bike use was banned in some urban areas to make way for the automobile and its association with modernity. Chinese urban planners described cycling as a “second-rate mode of transport,” and complained that cyclists got in the way of motor traffic. “Improved efficiency of junctions can only be achieved by taking the cyclists out of the equation,” the planners argued, asserting that cycling’s image was “inappropriate to a World City at the forefront of the technological revolution.”
However, the image of a “world city” as being supportive of bicycle infrastructure has led to a renewed interest in bike use in several Chinese cities. Some cities reversed their approach on banning bikes by building new bike lanes and identifying the positive health and environmental benefits of bike riding. The 2008 Olympics in Beijing and 2010 Expo events in Shanghai helped stimulate the new interest in bike infrastructure and bike use, as those cities presented themselves to global audiences. New bike-share programs were instituted and quickly surpassed other programs around the world, given China’s speed in introducing new developments. Qiu Baoxing, a vice minister in the Ministry of Construction argued that it was important for China to regain its reputation as the “Kingdom of Bicycles.”
Despite the new interest in bike sharing, bike lanes and other bike-related initiatives, riding has continued to decline in China as car use skyrockets.
China’s megacities such as Beijing continue to experience an explosion of car buying, congested roads, a squeeze on available land and air quality impacts. One of the striking visual discrepancies in Beijing today is the contrast of people riding older bikes along the edge of a wide major thoroughfares dominated by new cars.
Domestic bike production remains limited as manufacturers emphasize exports. China has flooded the United States with cheaper bikes and even forced the major American bike producer to move its production activities overseas. Today, nearly two-thirds of China’s bike production revenues are earmarked as exports, in contrast to the U.S., where 99 percent of the bikes in use are imports, with as many as 70 percent coming from China.
In cities like Portland, which seek to pursue bike-friendly urban environments, the Chinese experience is helpful though cautionary. Creating bike infrastructure matters and China’s capacity to make change rapidly and at a large scale, such as bike sharing programs, suggests a crucial role for public investment. Creating a bicycle manufacturing capacity represents another opportunity. But the dominant role of the automobile, a key factor in China’s quest for modernity, also suggests that any shift toward a bike friendly environment also requires a far deeper transition from modernity into a post-modern or post-automotive city.