Written for “The New Planner’s” winter 2012 edition. (American Planning Association)
Cycling Infrastructure in Rapidly Developing China
It was the ride of a lifetime. In September 2011, I biked more than1,000 miles fromBeijingtoShanghai.
Though it was plenty of fun, this was no mere joyride. I was trying to gain a firsthand, in-depth understanding of the bicycle’s role in Chinese life, and investigating how cycling culture and bike infrastructure can be integrated into efficient and sustainable transportation design. I pedaled through a number of dramatically different communities, from the dense, teeming municipalities ofBeijing,Tianjin, andShanghaito smog-stained meccas of industry to sweeping expanses of rice fields dotted with cows.
I headed toChina with many questions running through my mind. As China continues to grow, how can it accommodate both cars and bikes? Cars are not affordable for many Chinese citizens, and public transportation inChina’s largest cities can only accommodate 25 percent of the population. What kind of role can the bicycle play to guarantee equal accessibility to everyone? What sort of highways, arterials, and bike paths are needed to make sure people can efficiently and safely travel between established areas and the many new developments rising in this Asian superpower? How can the necessary infrastructure be smartly incorporated into landscape design while minimizing harmful environmental impacts?
The Bike in China: A Brief History
In1860, a Chinese official returning from a journey to western Europe provided the nation’s first reports of a new two-wheeled device. The journey west had been to investigate new trends in industrial development, and at that time the bike paled in comparison to railways and steam engines. It wasn’t until 1890 that the bike had proven itself as a practical and safe means of transportation. Up until then, the only cyclists in China were European and American expatriates living in the nation’s port cities. Westerners on their bikes were viewed with admiration for their athletic capabilities and stamina.
Bikes were introduced into Chinese culture by Chinese students returning from studying abroad. For them, the bike symbolized a break in traditional values and a progressive cultural orientation.
High prices of imported bikes restricted their use to the western-oriented upper class until the1920s, when the Chinese cycle industry was born. The three largest importers in China started producing their own product lines, prices were cut, and the bicycle became part of everyday life, used by postmen, people transporting goods, the military, police, and commuters.
After the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, subsidies to the cycle industry and its users further fostered the spread of the bicycle as a common means of transportation. By 1958, Chinawas producing more than one million bikes annually and distributing them both domestically and abroad.
Bike production continued to expand, and todayChinais producing 9,100,000 bikes annually—70 percent of the bikes produced worldwide each year. Two thirds of the bikes produced in China are exported. Bikes on Chinese streets have continued to evolve to include the electric bike, a hybrid between a fuel-powered scooter and the purely mechanical bicycle.
Bike Commuting in China is Surprisingly Doable
I was terrified before I embarked on my three-week bicycle journey. Even after months of planning and research, I was worried about getting stuck in frustrating (if not outright dire) circumstances. And my own anxieties paled in comparison to those of my rather wound-up Korean mother.
But the truth was that this bike ride, while not quite easy, was certainly doable. As soon as I began riding out ofBeijing, I realized thatChinais made for bicycles. For nearly two centuries,Chinahas placed a heavy emphasis on bikes as a primary mode of transportation. Even in today’s automobile age, the bike’s importance is still obvious. Bike lanes, separated from the highway by railings or planted medians, were reliably present in even the smallest of towns. National roads, one level down from the main freeway arterials, had limited traffic and wide shoulders. Roads were, for the most part, well maintained, and there are many more being built. I saw other bikers on the road at all hours of the day. Bike stores and mechanics were everywhere, set up in everything from a neon-lit retail store to a ragtag roadside stand.
Yes, China is Obsessed with Cars
As roaring development overtakes China, smog-belching cars and buses have crowded many bikes off the nation’s congested thoroughfares. Many ofChina’s roads are literally choking on automobiles, which have become a status symbol for members of the swelling middle class. This was especially evident when I was navigating in and out of Beijing, Shanghai, and Jinan’s busy gateways. I could see and taste the air as cars almost lightly grazed my bike.
Larger Chinese cities try to control the number of cars on the road by designating half of major commute times for license plates ending with even numbers and the other half for those ending with odd numbers. It is not clear that this rule in being enforced, however, and I heard from Beijing locals that many get around the regulation by purchasing two cars, one with odd-numbered plates and the other with even-numbered plates.
More than half of China’s cities cannot meet modest health standards, and currently 16 of the world’s 20 cities with the worst air are inChina. Visibility beyond a few blocks is limited, and blue skies are rare. About 300,000 people in China die each year from heart and lung disease caused by ambient air pollution. I saw many people trying to protect themselves from airborne particulates by covering their faces with masks. It’s true thatChina’s growing industry contributes to these numbers, but expanding car ownership, heavy traffic, and low-grade gasoline have made cars a leading contributor to the air pollution problem in Chinese cities.
Despite the number of cars and pollution on the streets, reports of the bike’s demise in China may be highly exaggerated—and premature.Chinaremains a world leader in bike production, and hundreds of millions of Chinese still use bikes. More cars cloggingChina’s streets may prove the rising affluence of some Chinese, but the bulk ofChina’s 1.3 billion citizens have yet to make it to the middle class. And for them, pedaling is still the best way to get from A to B.
For designers, the endurance of cycling presents an opportunity to create sustainable places that benefit from the presence of bicycles. That means better air, people exercising, less heart/lung disease, and the simple joys of being outside on a bike.
My journey through China left me with the following lessons for designers hoping to encourage bicycle use. They are based on direct observation, discussion with bike advocates in Beijingand Shanghai, and survey information collected from people I interacted with during my journey. Although my research was focused on a small transect of China, it seems that these lessons may also apply to any developing urban area. The benefits of biking are cross-cultural, as can be seen by considering a range of case studies. Issues surrounding environment and public health are global and indifferent to political boundaries. As the world’s bike capital, an emerging economic world leader, and a country with an unprecedented scale of development, Chinais in a unique position to lead a global cycling renaissance and set a new example for how bikes can be designed into everyday lives.
Connectivity is Key
It’s important to have continuous networks where bike lanes in one neighborhood connect to other networks. In sections of Shanghai, for instance, bicycle networks are fragmented, discouraging the use of bicycles for travel beyond one’s neighborhood. In some parts of China, bike lanes abruptly emerge a few miles outside of cities. That’s terrific for people riding in from beyond, but it can be a troublesome transition for people traveling in the opposite direction as they cross over from protected bike infrastructure to a small shoulder separated from traffic by a thin line of paint on the asphalt.
Amsterdam is a European city well known for its successful bike network. With 85 percent of its residents riding bikes at least once a week, it has been heralded as one of the world’s most sustainable cities. This small city boasts more than 450 kilometers of bike paths, providing nearly everyone with access to any part of the city. The networks connect people to commercial centers, supporting the economy, as well as to park spaces, encouraging general public health.
The benefits of successful bike networks should be considered in development within existing urban areas as well as in planning for new cities. Urban design can influence people’s travel behaviors and demand for certain types of mobility. Bike lanes should not only be connected to other bike lanes, but to other forms of public transportation to facilitate travel at a regional scale. Amsterdam continues to serve as a good example; its bus and train stations are reachable by bike lanes, and buses and trains allow bikes to be brought on board. New bus or train terminals in existing urban areas should be closely tied to the bike network. In developing areas, bike connectivity should be considered and designed for starting in the early concept phases of a project. Bikes and public transportation hubs should be included in overall circulation schemes and serve as the framework for further design and development.
Bike Security is Important
Since the economic reform initiated in the early 1980s, bicycles have become a major target of criminal activities in China because of their availability, utility, and monetary value, and because of the difficulty of securing them. Concerns about bike security hold a lot of people back from using their bikes as a primary mode of transportation. Many Chinese go through several cheap bikes a year due to the high frequency of theft.
Clues to the need for secure bicycle parking can be seen throughout China. The fully loaded bike racks outside Shanghai’s train station and in Jinan’s open spaces point to the need for more places to park bikes securely. Bike parking hidden behind buildings, rather than out front, is another problem, as hidden parking encourages theft.
Bike valets and parking guards may offer a solution. I saw crowded guarded bike parking in public plazas and outside of train stations in Beijing. Temporary guarded bike parking was set up in many cities I visited. During the evening hours, public plaza space was taken over by bike valet people who would guard bikes for a nominal hourly fee. People will take advantage of this amenity if the space and resources are provided.
Time is Money
Convincing people that they can save significant time in their commute is a driving factor in getting more people out of their cars and onto bicycles. As fashionable as cars are in China, some observers believe that the rate of growth is not sustainable, and that China will eventually reach a point where it simply will not be able to handle the number of cars on the road or the environmental burdens that come with them.
Bike lanes can be designed more efficiently by increasing connections and reducing obstacles within the lane. That will make bike travel quicker—probably even faster than traveling by car in rush hour traffic.
Copenhagen, Denmark is a good case study to consider when thinking about the travel time efficiencies of bicycles. Copenhagen’s bike lanes have pre-green signalization, which provides a head start to bikes in designated lanes. Additionally, traffic signals are timed for movement at about 11 miles per hour—the average speed of a bike. This allows cyclists to pedal continuously without having to stop and start in the same way a car would.
The Importance of Bicycles
Investing in urban bicycle culture is a promising strategy for improving environmental conditions, social life, and cultural diversity in cities while also engaging residents in a healthy amount of physical activity. Unless one believes that only those with access to a car have a right to safe mobility, safe bike networks of maintained pavement show respect for human dignity, regardless of the level of economic development of a neighborhood. In China, increased bicycle usage offers the potential to relieve the environmental burden that the nation is experiencing for a variety of reasons, which include its role as producer of many of the world’s consumer goods.
Currently, the conflict between tradition and modernization leaves Chinese bicycle culture at a crossroads, where it could be overtaken by new technology or grow into an important part of everyday urban life. Urban designers working in China can play a role in determining which way the bicycle will go by determining hierarchies of circulation and providing spaces for amenities critical to successful urban bike culture. Successful integration will help lead China toward a more sustainable future.