Initially edged out by automobiles, pedal power is on the rise again, thanks to bicycle sharing.
ON the streets of Beijing, it is common to see people of all ages riding on yellow, orange and blue bicycles.
These two-wheelers are provided by three major players – Ofo, Mobike and Bluegogo – in the bicycle-sharing industry.
For as little as 0.5 yuan (RM0.30), you can rent a shared bike for 30 minutes and ride to any destination. When you’re done, you lock and leave it by the pavement.
All the bicycles are connected to a GPS, which allows the companies as well as users to track their whereabouts.
Bicycles used to be a very important mode of transportation in China. At its height in the 1980s and 1990s, this bicycle kingdom had more than 500 million bicycles, which meant almost every Chinese had one.
The figure gradually dropped in the cities, particularly Beijing as it entered the millennium, when the economy started showing signs of life and more people could afford private cars.
A study in 2009 found that bicyclists only accounted for less than 20% of Beijing residents.
To encourage the use of bicycles to reduce air pollution and to bring back a blue sky for Beijingers, the city council started building bicycle lanes and bicycle-friendly facilities in the city.
The bike-sharing business made waves in this metropolis last year with the introduction of “the last kilometre” bicycle-sharing concept, which gave new life to the two-wheelers.
Today, there are an estimated 700,000 shared bikes in Beijing.
As of 2016, users of bike-sharing apps were recorded at 18.86 million throughout China and the figure is estimated to reach 50 million by the end of this year.
Da ge xiao huang che (Grab a little yellow car) was the common suggestion I heard from property agents when scouting for a new home in Beijing, after I complained that the areas they took me to were too far away.
This standard answer reflects how popular the bike-sharing programme is among the locals.
I decided to give it a try, although I have not ridden a bicycle on the road for more than 20 years.
As we walked out from his office, Xiao Jia – my property agent – walked to a row of shared-bikes offered by various companies.
He carefully chose one which was in good condition and reminded me: “Jie (elder sister), you have to check the bicycle carefully and make sure it is usable, some of them have been vandalised.
He was right. A check on these shared bicycles in the next few days found that some of them came with flat tires, missing seats and even damaged pedals.
Xiao Jia scanned the QR code on the bike and received a set of numbers on his phone to unlock it.
We headed straight to the bicycle lanes. Major roads in the city are built with bicycle lanes but my journey was not as smooth as I thought and was not without a struggle.
I was pedalling nervously through the busy streets, having to avoid ramming into pedestrians, motorcycles and other cyclists who came from all directions. Many cyclists and bikers were riding against traffic.
Impatient cyclists behind me also kept ringing their bells, warning this slow da jie (big sister), who was also zig-zagging, to get off. It took me about 15 minutes to reach my destination, which was only 2.5km away.
Bike-sharing apps have changed the mode of travelling for Beijingers.
According to the White Paper on bike-sharing and urban development, conducted by Beijing Tsinghua Tongheng Urban Planning and Design Institute and Mobike, the use of bicycles has increased from 5.5% to 11.6% after the introduction of bike-sharing apps.
As more bicycles hit the streets, the use of private cars, taxi cabs and e-hailing vehicles has decreased by more than half.
The report said the programme has helped reduce carbon emission by 540,000 tonnes, equivalent to planting 30 million trees – one each by a Malaysian – and has saved 460 million litres of petrol.
However, there have been grouses about the bicycles crowding sidewalks.
“I can hardly walk now,” said a middle-aged woman, when met near Tuanjiehu subway station.
A photo of a private car surrounded by dozens of shared bicycles in different colours became an Internet meme.
A taxi driver whom I chatted to also complained that he almost hit a shared bike that was left on the highway.
“I don’t understand how the bicycle ended there,” he smiled.
In responding to the people’s grouses, the Beijing government is currently seeking public feedback on ways to improve the situation.
I hope that will mean more orderly traffic in Beijing.