12 May 2014

Why Isn't Bike Share Booming In Beijing?

Someone I knew took a trip to China about twenty years ago.  Back then, it was still rare for an American to go there, except on business.  And, from her photos and descriptions, she experienced much of the "old" China, complete with streets as clotted with cyclists as the Long Island Expressway (a.k.a. The World's Longest Parking Lot) is clogged with cars during rush hour.


Back then, China was known as The Kingdom of Bicycles.  Even today, more bicycles are ridden in that country--by far--than in any other.  And 79 of the world's bicycle-share programs--including the world's two busiest, in Hangzhou and Wuhan--are found there.

So, one would expect that a bike-share program in Beijing would be as popular as some of the local delicacies.  However, the program in the Chinese capital is probably one of the biggest busts, so far, in the movement.

One explanation for the Beijing bike share bust is that more than in other Chinese cities, in Beijing automobiles became symbols of prosperity and bicycles as markers of poverty and downward mobility. That could also explain why a "bike culture" hasn't developed as it has in Hangzhou or in places like Copenhagen, Portland or New York. In other words, bicyling--even for recreation, let alone transportation--is not seen as "hip" in Beijing as it is in the other cities I've mentioned. In fact, from what I've read, there isn't even a subculture or "bike neighborhood" in the Chinese capital.

Of course, that doesn't mean that one couldn't develop. After all, about a generation ago, bicycling in Copenhagen experienced a devolution similar to (if, perhaps, not on the same scale) as the one Beijing is experiencing. Something similar happened in New York and other American cities a couple of generations before that. In New York, Copenhagen and other cities, people got tired of fighting traffic and realized that bicycling could get them to their destinations faster than driving and, in some cases, even mass transit. From what I've been reading, it seems that some people in Beijing aren't happy about the auto traffic congestion, let alone the poor air quality that's resulted from it..

Maybe Beijing is just one spike in petrol prices from a boom in its bike share program.

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