Bicycle kingdom reborn

By DAVID BLAIR | China Daily USA | Updated: 2017-09-22 23:21
Bicycle kingdom reborn
After two decades of car-centric growth and city planning, China is now moving toward sustainable transportation, especially bicycles. The colorful dockless shared bikes that were invented in China but are quickly spreading around the world are synergistic with government policies that aim to transform China's cities.

In December 2013, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a transformative guideline that codified national street designs. It aimed to provide safe, connected networks for bikers and walkers. And in August 2014, the National Development and Reform Commission and three ministries set up pilot programs in 28 cities and counties to improve the government's capability to promote sustainable modes of transportation and efficient use of space. This is all part of the overall goal, laid out in the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20) to become an "ecological civilization".

Since the advent of dockless bike-sharing systems around two years ago, the percentage of trips taken by bicycle has soared. Data from Mobike shows that, nationwide, the percentage rose from 5.5 percent to 11.6 percent in the few months after dockless bike sharing was introduced. The shift was mostly away from car trips, which fell from 29.8 percent to 26.6 percent. According to data collected by AMAP, a major online map provider, the share of short trips taken by car in Shanghai declined from 37 percent in August 2016 to less than 35 percent a year later.

These seem like small shifts, but they are a big turnaround from decades of rapid car growth. From its time not so long ago as the "kingdom of the bicycle", China still has many world-class existing bike facilities, and many cities still have a bicycling culture that can be restored.

Transforming cities

Chinese car sales have grown 11.6 percent per year since 2000 and the nation is now the world's largest car market. But this growth path is not sustainable.

Data from the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau show that 31 percent of Beijing's PM2.5 (small particle) pollution comes from motor vehicles, more than any other single source, including industrial pollution and coal combustion.

Furthermore, 58 percent of nitrogen oxides and large percentages of other noxious air pollution in Beijing are the result of automobile exhaust. According to the World Health Organization, 260,000 people die in China each year as a result of road incidents - and 60 percent of those are vulnerable pedestrians, cyclists and people on motorcycles. Traffic congestion is so bad that the average speed for cars in Beijing is 12.1 kilometers per hour.

One way China has moved toward sustainable transportation in its cities is by building subways. From 2009 to 2015, the country built 87 mass-transit lines, totaling 3,100 kilometers. As of early 2017, 5,637 more kilometers are under construction. In contrast, during the same period, Washington, DC, managed to build 47.6 kilometers of one new line, mostly above ground, which has yet to reach Dulles International Airport.

But subways suffer from what is called "the last mile problem". No matter how dense the system, only a portion of the population will live within the 1-kilometer range that is considered walkable.

According to research by the Institute for Transportation Development Policy, even the extensive Beijing metro line reaches only 60 percent of the people in the urban core and 46 percent in the municipality. However, the roughly 3-km range permitted by shared bikes now allows nearly all the people in the urban core - and most further out - to easily reach a subway station.

Private bikes can't solve the last mile problem because they are often stolen from metro stations or other locations, and they are not necessarily available on both ends of a subway trip.

Zhang Yanqi, chief operating officer of ofo, says that a core vision of his company is to solve the last mile problem by providing accessible and affordable transportation. He cited studies showing that 19 of the 20 largest cities with access to ofo have seen a substantial reduction in congestion and pollution after dockless shared bikes became available. Traffic congestion has fallen 4 percent since 2016.

Plus, the large numbers of shared bicycles make the streets safer for all bikers and walkers. Large groups are more visible and can tame speeding or reckless drivers.

Shared bikes also appear to stimulate more use of public transit and private bicycles. Deng Han, an urban development program engineer at ITDP in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, reports that total bicycle usage quadrupled at one bus rapid transit station in the city from 2014 to 2017. Private bike usage doubled. Liu Daizong, China transport program director of the World Resources Institute, a global research organization focused in part on developing sustainable cities, reports that ridership in the Chengdu subway system went up 15 percent in the first four months after shared bikes became available.

There are lots of complaints about how much space the shared bikes occupy in the city. But 10 to 15 bikes can be parked in the space of just one car. Since each shared bike is used six to eight times per day, that means 60 to 120 bike riders per day can access their transport mode in the parking space of just one car.

Building bike infrastructure

Many regions of China are building bike infrastructure. For example, the city of Xiamen, Fujian province, opened a 7.6-kilometer elevated bike path in January that allows cyclists to travel unimpeded over city streets. The path connects three industrial parks, five communities and three shopping malls. More than 5,000 cyclists use it each day.

Nanchang, capital of Jiangxi province, has built protected bike lanes throughout the newer parts of the city and uses metal posts to ensure that cars don't endanger the cyclists. Lang Daoxian, deputy director of the Department of Culture for the province, says: "In Nanchang, urban roads are very narrow. We have to have these posts to ensure the security of the people and also to make best use of the land."

Jiangxi has also built special bicycle routes around Poyang Lake, China's largest fresh water lake, as part of its plans to attract green tourism.

Guangzhou has transformed its central Zhongshan Avenue by building a world-class bus rapid transit system along with 23 kilometers of separated bike and pedestrian paths on both sides of the road. Immediately after the protected lanes were built, bicycle volume increased by 54 to 112 percent along the road, incidentally reducing car traffic congestion because a bike rider takes up much less room than a car.

In addition, the city has built 3,000 kilometers of separated greenway. Guangdong province has a terrific network of six intraprovince greenways ranging from 120 to 480 kilometers long, totaling 1,690 kilometers, that allow bikers to travel safely between most cities.

Cities are planning to reduce car travel. For example, the Beijing Transport Commission aims to build 1,000 total kilometers of railway and to encourage 80 percent of residents to commute by public transport, bicycle or walking - up from 45 percent in 2016.

By the end of 2018, Beijing plans to build more than 1,000 kilometers of greenway downtown and in outlying areas. It also plans to build a dedicated bike path in the high-tech northwestern sections of the city that will allow cyclists to commute in 20 to 30 minutes, compared with an hour by car.

The 6.3-kilometer lane will connect the Huilongguan residential community in Changping district with Shangdi in Haidian district, where many companies are located, says Rong Jun, a spokesman for the commission. "In the future, the lane will extend to Zhongguancun Software Park, where many IT companies are located," he says. "Traffic in the area needs to be improved because of high population density."

Not yet a biker's paradise

Obviously, a big transformation in transportation systems doesn't come easy. Car drivers resist reductions in the public space devoted to them, and it takes a long time to transform a city.

Kim Lua, senior associate at the WRI in Beijing, says urban planners in China - including the urban-rural development ministry - support complete streets that provide safety for bikers and walkers.

But traffic engineers and the traffic police are often primarily interested in traffic throughput. For example, the WRI is working with Yangpu district in Shanghai to plan safe biking facilities along a road near four major universities. But road design standards mandate 3.75-meter-wide car lanes, which encourage speeding, and the traffic police are not likely to agree to remove one lane of traffic to create space.

China is still in the early stages of moving back to being the kingdom of the bicycle. But bike use has taken off because of government policies supporting sustainable transport, combined with the easy availability of shared bikes.


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