China: Still the Kingdom of Bicycles?

Cars are running China's national treasure off the road

| September 21, 2006


China has long been recognized as a nation of bicyclists, but as its economy booms and the government paves the world's largest interstate-highway system, pedaling two-wheelers are being pushed aside to make room for cars. As Bill Donahue reports for Sierra, the Chinese have been reaping the benefits of a burgeoning economy: bigger homes, meatier diets, and the chance to own cars. With the country poised to soon overtake the United States as the world's largest automotive market, cars and highways are being touted as a means of fostering a middle class, allowing corporations to expand beyond major metropolitan areas. Such developments mean the bicycle, once a favored mean of transportation, is on its way to becoming an item of leisure rather than necessity.

In 'Greening the Dragon,' a special report sponsored by the UK's Department for the Environment and Rural Affairs in Green Futures, an independent magazine published by Forum for the Future, Jonathon Porritt writes that 'the car has become a far more fitting symbol of economic and political success than the lowly bike.' While there are still only about eight cars for every 1,000 Chinese citizens, urban areas like Beijing squeeze in 1,000 new automobiles a day.

Those who remain true to their two wheels aren't necessarily bicycle advocates. Donahue, who took his love of cycling to Shanghai to ride with the city's 5 million remaining bike commuters, reports that he was hard pressed to find anyone who would say anything bad about the surge of cars in cities, despite increased biker fatalities, disregarded bike lanes, and car-only streets. In fact, cyclists are praising cars for bringing smoother pavement and stricter traffic laws to urban areas. Even the Chinese bike manufacturer Forever Bicycle's spokesman Lawrence Yu declares, 'Chinese people need more cars.'

It's actually the higher-ups who are worried. A prime concern is that all these new cars will worsen China's already grave air pollution problems. In June, Porritt reports, the Chinese construction minister announced the reinstatement of all bike lanes that had been handed over to cars. He also mandated that civil servants use bicycles or public transportation for their work commute. Porritt posits that the minister is 'apparently determined that China should regain its global accolade as 'the Kingdom of Bicycles.''



Go there >> Shanghai By Bike

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