“On the avenues, people ride on a vehicle with only two wheels, which is held together by a pipe. They sit above this pipe and push forward with movements of their feet, thus keeping the vehicle moving. There’s yet another kind of construction which is propelled by foot pedaling. They dash along like galloping horses.”
— A Chinese official named Binchun, reporting on bicyclists in Paris, 1866
A wide range of innovative urban projects earned places on a list of the “world’s most visionary cities” in the January issue of Travel + Leisure magazine.
But the “visionary” project that caught this cyclist’s eye is the world’s largest bike-sharing program in Hangzhou, China.
“Historically, Beijing has been China’s most bike-mad city,” says Travel + Leisure, “but Hangzhou — situated several hours northwest of Shanghai — has stolen the city’s two-wheeled crown thanks to its far-reaching bicycle-sharing program.
“More than 50,000 bright-red bikes, equipped with baskets and bells,” the magazine said, “have been placed at numerous rental stations around Hangzhou. Borrowing a bike is simple: after acquiring a transportation card (it holds your rental funds), swipe it over a bicycle and you’re free to pedal, well, freely — the first hour costs nothing.”
Bike-sharing programs, of course, aren’t new. They’ve been implemented in such major European cities as Paris, London, Stockholm and Barcelona. In the United States, Denver’s B-Cycle program, launched last April 22, Earth Day, aims to have 1,000 red bikes for rent at stations around the city during 2011. And Washington’s Capital Bikeshare program, inaugurated Sept. 20, has 1,100 bicycles available for rental at 110 stations around the District of Columbia and across the Potomac River in Arlington, Va.
But the Hangzhou program, started May 1, 2008, stands out because of its sheer size: 50,000 bicycles at more than 1,000 rental stations for a population of about 1.9 million in the urban core. The second-largest bike-sharing network is Velib in Paris, which provides about 20,000 bikes distributed among 1,450 stations for its population of about 2.1 million.
Rental stations in Hangzhou are placed so that no station is more than about 100 meters from another. In Paris, the interval is about 300 meters between rental stations.
A bit of historical irony: In 1866, a Chinese official named Binchun led a government mission to Europe to report on the latest technological developments in the Western world. In Paris, he seemed to be particularly impressed by a new-fangled, two-wheeled conveyance that came to be known as a bicycle. (See quote above.)
It wasn’t long before China began importing or making its own bicycles. For decades, the Chinese capital, Beijing, was known as the “bicycle kingdom” because of the ubiquity of bikes.
In 1989, says the Chinese news agency Xinhua, more than 4 million bicycles were on Beijing roads and 60 percent of the capital’s residents used bikes. Now, because of a surge in ownership of private cars, only about 19.7 percent of Beijing residents ride bikes — still a very respectable percentage compared to bicycle use in the United States.
What happened, partly as a result of China’s booming economy, is that China overtook the United States as the world’s biggest auto market in 2009, says Xinhua. China’s car sales totaled 13.64 million, a 46.15 percent surge from 2008, according to China’s Association of Automobile Manufacturers.
“Beijing has firstly, among other Chinese cities, stepped into a society of automobiles,” the official People’s Daily, the Communist Party newspaper, proclaimed in 2003.
So now, because of increasing pollution and congestion, the government is trying to get the Chinese back onto their bikes. Xinhua says that Beijing authorities are hoping to increase the percentage of bicycle users among residents from 19.7 percent to 23 percent by 2015.
Plans call for a bicycle-sharing system in Beijing very similar to that in Hangzhou — more than 50,000 bikes available at about 1,000 bike-hire stations located around subway, bus and railway stations so that bicycles again become an integral component of mass transit.
But as newly affluent Chinese consumers embark on a love affair with the automobile, I have a feeling that bicycle advocates may be fighting a losing battle.
Note: A Chinese film released in 2001, Beijing Bicycle, provides a look at the Chinese capital at a time when bicycles were still widely used as a means of transport. See film trailer below.