Living in Beijing in the early 2000s, I had one laborious chore every morning before I could ride my bike to school: pulling it out from my neighbors’ bicycles, which were stacked together like turkey meat in a sandwich and stretched out into an endless line. It was a time when 40% of people in China, known as the “kingdom of bicycles, ” cycled to work and school.
Now, as Beijing’s 19 million residents and 5.3 million cars turn highways into parking lots and subways into sardine tins, the municipal government is urgently calling for a comeback of the old-school bicycle. In June of last year, 2, 000 public bikes appeared in two downtown districts in Beijing. With a refundable security deposit, Beijing citizens may rent the bikes free of charge for the first hour and for 1 RMB, or 16 U.S. cents, an hour afterward. A year later, the government has added another 12, 000 bicycles in five outer-suburb districts. The goal is to quadruple that figure in the next two years, raising the usage rate of bicycles in the city to above 20%.
The cycling scheme is intended to fill gaps in Beijing’s public transit network, reduce congestion, and improve air quality. But to any Beijinger who once saw the upgrade from bikes to cars as an iconic step-up into the middle-class ranks, this program is an ironic reminder of the country’s blind pursuit of GDP growth. It is an example of the government’s lack of foresight in dealing with the side effects of economic policies: When tax reductions and cash subsidies were issued in 2009 to stimulate automobile consumption, the government probably didn’t expect citizens to hoard 1.6 million new cars in just two years and completely clog Beijing’s roads. New regulations had to be adopted to limit the number of cars. And now, the city government is betting on the public bicycles, an increasingly popular choice of transportation in cosmopolitan cities such as Paris and New York, and in domestic cities such as Hangzhou, where 70, 000 bikes are rented 260, 000 times daily.
But will public bicycles provide the much needed antidote for Beijing’s traffic woes? The program’s performance has not been very impressive so far. According to the Beijing Municipal Commission of Transportation, 170, 000 rentals were recorded in the past year, meaning the average rental frequency is less than once a day for each bike. Comparatively, rental frequency in Hangzhou was more than three times a day a year into the program.
One key problem that bicycles cannot solve in Beijing is transportation to downtown from the outer suburbs. The national census shows that by 2010, 40% of Beijing’s population lived in the city’s 10 suburban districts, which are simply too far away from the city center to make bike-riding feasible. For instance, Tongzhou District in the southeast corner, connected to downtown by one of Beijing’s most jammed highways, is at least 50 minutes away by bike. As more white-collar workers move to the suburbs for their lower housing prices, transportation to downtown will become only a bigger challenge.
What’s more, Beijing’s rapidly deteriorating environment is not welcoming to outdoor activities. On a good day, the city’s particulate concentration level is equal to the worst of New York City, where the new network of Citi Bikes now stretches over lower- to mid-Manhattan and part of Brooklyn; on a bad day, three times New York’s. The Beijing government faces a paradox: The cycling program partially serves the purpose of reducing pollution, but its popularity may be largely dependent on the city’s current air quality.