29 May 2018

From Cars To Bikes, On A Highway

Twenty-five or thirty years ago, streets in Chinese cities were as choked with traffic as the Long Island Expressway (a.k.a. The World's Longest Parking Lot) during peak commuter hours.  The difference was, of course, that the throngs of people going to work or school in Beijing or  Shanghai weren't enclosed in four-wheeled motorized vehicles.  Instead, they were astride bicycles:

Westerners--especially Americans--were amused by the idea of "bicycle traffic jams."  The Chinese who were part of them, like people stuck in any kind of traffic jam, probably weren't (or so I would assume).  But within a decade or so, their problem would be "solved":  Instead of being surrounded by cyclists on their way to work, they would be stuck in automotive gridlock that would make a trip across the George Washington Bridge at 8 am seem like, well, a bike tour along la route departementale 618 from France to Spain.

Now some folks in Beijing are realizing that driving isn't always as quick or convenient as they'd hoped. They, especially the young are--you guessed it!--getting back on their bikes.

I haven't heard any reports of bicycle traffic jams like the ones the city experienced when few people had cars.  But city planners might be anticipating them--or responding to folks who want their bike commutes to be safer and more convenient.  To that end, construction on a 6.5 kilometer bicycle highway is set to begin this September.  

Because it will cross major highways, much of the bike route will be elevated.  There will be no traffic lights, and its use will be restricted to pedal bicycles without motors.  Moreover, it will have a gated entrance--a feature borrowed, along with others, from the world's longest elevated bike path in Xiamen.

That southeastern Chinese city was mainly a port city until three decades ago, but has morphed into a center for financial services and technology.  It has also become, interestingly, the city frequently cited as "greenest" or "most livable" in the country.  The influx of highly-educated professionals probably has something to do with that.

Those are the same sort of people who live and work in Zhongguancun, the district in the northwestern part of Beijing where the new bike highway will be built.  It's often called "China's Silicon Valley."  If the area's scientists, engineers, venture capitalists and creative people are anything like their counterparts in California, it's not surprising that they've taken to cycling--and want better conditions for it.

What I find fascinating is that the move from bicycles to cars and back has happened more or less within a generation.   Here in the US, the cycle has taken a century--that is, in those areas where there are people who ride to work and school, and for pleasure.

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