After twenty years of booming car ownership, much of China is now experiencing a resurgence of the bicycle. But despite suffering considerably because of automobile use, Beijing’s bike culture and bike share system are struggling. What factors are to blame?

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Beijing embodying the ‘Kingdom of Bicycles’ in the 1980s

Once referred to as the “Kingdom of Bicycles,” China recently experienced a steep decline in its bicycle use. As economic growth and per capita income increased at staggering rates, so did private car ownership at the expense of the bicycle. From 1995 to 2005, the country’s bike fleet decreased by 35%, going from 670 million to 435 million. Concurrently, private car ownership skyrocketed as the country continues to westernize, going from 285,000 in 1985 to 18.5 million in 2005–a trend that has recently gained speed.

To accommodate the ever-multiplying private automobile, many of China’s biggest cities implemented serious measures. In 2004, Shanghai banned cyclists from a few downtown roads and other cities closed some bike lanes in a ill-advised attempt to avoid collisions and reduce congestion. Unsurprisingly, these attempts to cater to the automobile have had dire effects.

Air pollution has been dramatically exacerbated by mass automobile use, leading to shortened life spans, according to studies, and in some cases causing cities to shut down. And increased congestion has negatively impacted economic productivity through increasing the amount of time spent in traffic. 11-day traffic jam, anyone?

Now, Chinese cities are having to back-pedal from the latest automobile craze. And many cities are turning to bike share to help solve their automobile-induced quandary (see video below), which has led to China now being home to 79 of the world’s bike share programs, including the two largest systems in the world, Hangzhou and Wuhan.

Beijing is one of those cities in a desperate back-pedal after suffering from severe air pollution over the last decade. Prior to the 2008 Olympics, in attempt to clear the air before showcasing the city to the world, Beijing instituted a policy that restricted cars from being on the road based on license plate number. And the city recently reinstated a similar license plate measure that would be in effect on high-pollution days.

Beijing has also deferred to public transportation in an effort to help loosen up the automotive gridlock by rapidly expanding its subway system, which is already one of the largest transit network in the world with a ridership of 8 million passengers per day. And joining its counterparts in Hangzhou and elsewhere, Beijing implemented a bike share program to help bring the bicycle back to the nation’s capital.

But unlike its counterparts, which are seeing relatively high ridership rates, Beijing’s program is floundering. In attempt to jump-start usage of the system to address the growing issues of congestion and air pollution, Beijing now has plans to nearly double its number of bikes to 25,000 by the end of 2013. But will that be enough to get Beijingers to use bike share?

Bike share’s troubled beginnings and future growth in Beijing
After giving up on the city’s first bike share program in 2008, Beijing gave bike share a second chance in 2012. In an effort to boost the number of cyclists on the road by 25%, the Beijing municipal government funded and launched the system in Dongcheng and Chaoyang districts with 2,000 bicycles and 63 stations.  As of May 2013, the program expanded to 14,000 bicycles and 520 stations, and plans to have 50,000 bicycles and 1,000 stations by 2015.

Beijing Bike Share barely being used in

Beijing Bike Share sitting idly and unused (2013)

A little over a year after the program’s launch, many of its bicycles sit idly and unused at the stations. In one year since its inception, Beijing’s bike share recorded approximately 1.7 million rentals which averages out to less than one rental a day per bike. That’s about one-fourth the amount of trips that each bike in Hangzhou sees per day (3.8). And in Wuhan, currently the largest bike share system in the world, its 90,000 bikes are rented at least twice a day with 180,000 trips made per day. 

Why aren’t Beijingers using Bike Share?
In a country that has the bicycle deeply embedded into its recent history and one that is currently seeing a resurgence of the bicycle, why aren’t Beijingers using bike share? Some suggest that because of a almost non-existent bike culture in Beijing, the local government had little incentive or push to plan a quality bike share system.

Bike Culture
The bicycle mode share in Beijing declined from 62% in 1986 to 16% in 2010, while automobile growth is increasing about 15%-20% each year. Along with this modal shift, the perception of bicycles has also shifted, exacerbating the issue. The bicycle was once the social status symbol of China. Now, it has been replaced by the car as the new status symbol because owning a car represents success and an upgrade to the middle-class. People in Beijing generally perceive the bicycle as outdated, and refer it as the main mode of transport for the poor. In an article published in Time, a Chinese woman even stated that she would “…rather cry in a BMW car than laugh on the backseat of a bicycle.”

Shannon Bufton, bicycle advocate and co-founder of 'Smarter than Car', at a bike cafe in Beijing (2013)

Beijing Bicycle advocate Shannon Bufton (2013)

Planning the System
According to some, Beijing’s current bike sharing system was poorly designed and implemented. In an interview with Shannon Bufton, bicycle mobility expert and founder of ‘Smarter than Car’ based in Beijing, he said the government failed to plan the location of the bike stations strategically. Bufton recommends that placing the bike share stations near the hutongs–narrow alleys where it is more conducive to bicycling–could help boost the number of bike share users.

As the city continues to modernize, people are living further away from their work–a common reason why most of my Beijing friends do not commute by bike. By focusing the system within the 3rd ring road–an area that encapsulates the urban core more holistically–it will make it easier for Beijingers to navigate throughout the city by bike.

Bicycle infrastructure in Haidian District in Beijing (2013)

Bicycle infrastructure in Haidian District in Beijing (2013)

And Beijing can undoubtedly learn from its fellow Chinese cities. In Hangzhou, for instance, bike share is integrated with all modes of transportation with a higher density of bike share stations. Other factors such as the development of bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure have also led to the resurgence of the bicycle in Hangzhou. Meanwhile, Beijing is playing catch-up as it works on its implementation of designated bike lanes in historic centers, arteries, and central business districts by 2015. And, with Beijing’s strong negative sentiment surrounding bicycling, it is unclear whether or not new infrastructure coupled with the growth of the bike share system will be enough to increase the system’s use.

What’s next for Beijing’s Bike Share?
Bufton mentions that even though utility cycling has gone down, recreational cycling has proven to be quite popular these days among the Chinese, as shown in the video below.  He remains hopeful and sees that the culture is slowly shifting in favor of bicycles yet again. By positioning the bicycle in a way that does not associate it with being poor, and instead as a “hip” and “cool” means of transportation, is the key to drawing more people back to pedaling. Bufton’s organization, Smarter than Car, is already organizing social rides, lectures and other events, such as Beijing Bike Week, to promote cycling in Beijing.

There is undoubtedly potential for Beijing’s bike share program to succeed. Take away the heavy automobile traffic, and you’ll see that Beijing’s infrastructure is already well-suited for bicycling with its smooth and flat roadways and designated bike lanes, many of which are to be expanded upon. Now it is time to shift the focus towards creating a culture that makes cycling fun and mobilize the bicycle grassroots movement. In doing so, it would encourage the Beijing government to plan better when it prepares to roll out the next 500 bike share stations in 2015.