Re-cycling a past trend

  • Letters
  • Saturday, 22 Jan 2011

Beijing plans to have 1,000 points near subway stations where commuters can rent and return 50,000 bicycles for the initial or final 1km - 3km of their journey.

BEIJING, once regarded as the capital of bicycles, is now full of cars. In the 1980s, about 60% of the population cycled to work. Today, only 18% do so, cycling dropping to the third most preferred mode of transport behind public transport and the car.

However, during the Olympic Games in 2008, the city government initiated a campaign to bring back the cycling trend in its bid to make the Chinese capital a more livable place.

The city authorities reduced the number of vehicles on th road and put the development of better subway and bus networks on top of their agenda. The measures have had a positive change, with more residents taking up cycling once more.

Shanxi province born Ge Zhongjun began riding a bicycle again a few months ago, when he started work.

“I used to cycle to school, a 15-minute trip,” he reminisced.

“My hometown is a small city, and it is more convenient to cycle. I remember how great it felt to cycle down a slope to get to school.

“When I came to Beijing for studies, I stopped cycling for a while. When I found a job in the city centre recently, I rented an apartment near my office so that I could cycle to work.”

Ge said his parents often advised him to do some exercise like cycling to loosen his stiff muscles after long hours sitting in the office.

“By bus it takes three stops to reach my office, and the travelling time is at least 30 minutes. But if I cycle, it only takes 20 minutes,” he added.

“There are advantages over driving a car, too. I need not worry about the cost of parking and car maintenance. And it is difficult to find parking lot in the city. Moreover, cycling is a low-carbon way of life.”

But, Ge said, he might consider other means of transport when he eventually has a family.

According to a Bike for A Better Beijing report released in September last year by the Friends of Nature (FON), an non-governmental organisation that champions cycling, the number of motorised vehicles in the city had grown from 2,300 in the late 1940s to about five million now.

While car sales are expected to slow down following the government’s move to limit the number of vehicle licence plate approvals to 240,000 for this year, there is no stopping the trend of car ownership among affluent Chinese.

The report highlighted the major problems faced by the city’s cyclists, such as the danger of cycling in a road network designed more for motor vehicles, and the lack of parking space for bicycles.

FON communications and public affairs department coordinator Smile Leung said although Beijing was considered one of China’s most bicycle-friendly cities, there were not enough designated bicycle lanes, and safety measures to protect cyclists were lacking.

The risk of having their bicycles stolen are one factor discouraging people from cycling, but the main reason for the dwindling number of cyclists is the lack of safe infrastructure.

In response, the city government had installed barriers on the bicycle lane between the Dongsi and Dengshikou subway stations to prevent encroachment by motorists, Leung said.

She said the city needed more such measures and infrastructure for cyclists if it was serious about promoting this green mode of transport.

No-Car Day is on Sept 1 but FON encourages motorists to leave their cars behind for three days to give cycling a shot.

“The impact of the No-Car Day would be limited if it was for one day only. So we launched a separate three-day campaign targeting those who take the taxi to work so that they can experience what is it like to cycle around the city,” she said.

The NGO champions the construction of more bike rental points – whether funded by the government or private sector – as bike rental helps promote cycling and addresses the problem faced by residents, especially on the initial or final 1km-3km of their journey.

“Instead of taking the bus or walking, residents can rent and ride a bike to their destination. Many bike rental companies mushroomed during the Beijing Games, but over the last few years many of them closed down,” she said.

“As far as we know, Beijing Bicycle Rental Co is the only company still in this business, and they have about 20 rental sites within the second ring road. They are waiting for changes to the government’s policies to revive the industry.”

Last October, Fangzhou, the largest bike rental company, went bankrupt after suffering huge losses. It was the latest casualty in the troubled industry that began in the city in 2006.

Bike rental operator Liu Guojun, who has about 15 bikes at a rental point near Tsinghua University, said he had to rely on repairing bicycles to make ends meet these days.

“Our deposit is only 150 yuan (RM69), one of the lowest in town. The rent is supposed to be 8 yuan (RM3.68) a day but I will have to settle for 6 yuan (RM2.76) on a slow day. This is a tough business,” he said.

The public say the bike rental system failed because there are too few locations where bicycles can be picked up and dropped off.

The good news is that last December the government an-nounced a pilot bicycle-sharing project with more than 10,000 bicycles in 200 sites at the Line 4, 5 and Batong subway stations.

Under the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015), the city plans to have 1,000 points and more than 50,000 bicycles.

The bike rental system should never be a business but rather a public-welfare initiative that is free and led by the government, Beijing Bicycle Rental Co president Wang Yong was quoted by China Daily as saying.

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