[Documents menu] Documents menu

Bicycle No Longer King of the Road in China

By Philip P. Pan, The Washington Post, Monday 12 March 2001; Page A01

BEIJING -- It was just a little tap, but Song Yuhua had had enough. When the taxicab bumped her bicycle and sent her tumbling onto the pavement, the 50-year-old factory worker refused to dust herself off and pedal away.

Even after the cabby apologized and cars lined up behind him, Song stood in the polluted haze of the evening rush hour and shook a finger at the long column of frustrated motorists honking their horns at her. You're not even supposed to be in this lane! she cried. This is a bike lane!

And for a moment, a lone bicyclist appeared to stop the advance of the automobile in China. But then a police officer intervened, Song yielded and the cars began moving again, allowing China to resume its relentless drive toward a future in which the long-beloved bicycle may be reduced to a toy.

For nearly half a century, multitudes of cyclists packed the dusty boulevards of Chinese cities, an image as evocative of the nation's identity as the Great Wall or the giant panda. Now, after decades of steady increases, the number of bicycles on China's streets has begun to fall.

The turnaround is a small milestone in the rapid transformation of Chinese life, one that provokes mixed feelings among Chinese about how their country is changing as its economy grows. Applauded by those who see the automobile as a symbol of progress, the bike's decline is mourned by environmentalists and others who yearn for a time when the streets were not so crowded and people were not so busy. And like so much else in modern China, the dispute is colored by a touch of class conflict.

Ordinary people like us can't afford cars, Song grumbled. We ride bicycles.

The bicycle still has not gone the way of the rickshaw. It remains the primary mode of transportation for millions, and there are nearly twice as many bicycles in China -- 540 million -- as there are people in the United States. But riding one is more of a hassle than ever.

Cars rule the roads now, spewing exhaust into cyclists' faces, pushing them into crowded side lanes and striking them with startling frequency. Housing reform has led people to move farther from their jobs, making bicycle commutes increasingly impractical. And modern young women choosing skirts instead of pants are giving up their bikes for rapidly expanding bus and subway lines.

Less than a decade ago, residents of Beijing mounted their bicycles for 60 percent of all trips in the city, according to Chinese traffic studies. Today, the figure is down to 40 percent. Farther south, in Shanghai and Guangzhou, it has dropped to as low as 20 percent.

It's not the same anymore, sighed Yeh Nong, 43, a government worker browsing in one of Beijing's last used-bicycle shops. When I was young, we used to spend the weekends riding through the city to the Summer Palace. It was a wonderful feeling. Now, riding a bicycle is more dangerous. And the air is terrible. When you get home, your nose and mouth are black with soot. Who wants to do it anymore?

Even the saleswoman, Bai Yunxia, 39, acknowledged that her products are less useful than before. China has changed so much. Everything is faster. You can't sit around and drink tea all day anymore. So a lot of people don't have time for a bicycle, either.

Bai takes the subway to work. She said her parents could commute by bicycle because their employers, state factories, provided their family an apartment near work. But many companies don't do that now, she said. Anyway, I like living in the suburbs.

China's fascination with the bicycle began in the late 19th century, when two Americans pedaled from Constantinople to Peking on a pair of Humber bicycles with diamond-pattern frames. Crowds greeted them in village after village, describing the strange vehicle as a foreign horse and a little mule that you drive by the ears and kick in the sides to make him go.

Several years later, China's last emperor, the boy Pu Yi, ordered gaps cut into the high thresholds of the Forbidden City so he could ride his bicycle unimpeded through the palace grounds. But the masses did not begin to buy bicycles until after the 1949 Communist Revolution, often receiving a government subsidy to do so. Families considered the bicycle a prized possession; women sometimes refused to marry men who did not own one. And when China opened its economy to market forces in 1979, bicycle ownership soared.

But bicycle production has been falling since 1995, and almost all the bikes made in China now are exported. Barely 1 million were produced for sale here in 1999, compared with more than 30 million just five years earlier, according to government statistics.

At the same time, China has been promoting car ownership to boost the nation's auto industry and give the country a more modern image. Car sales are up 15 percent a year. In Beijing alone, the number of cars has nearly tripled to 1.6 million since 1993.

But because road construction has not kept pace, the result has been a traffic mess that makes the Capital Beltway at rush hour look like a walk in the park. Cars trying to escape gridlock sneak into the bike lanes. Cyclists dash through intersections, dodging traffic. Chinese engineers like to tell stories about Western traffic experts who arrive brimming with solutions only to depart, shaking their heads in despair.

More often than not, city leaders have sided with the cars. In Guangzhou, they tried to outlaw bikes from downtown completely in 1993, but a popular outcry led to a partial ban instead. In Shanghai, there are plans to force bicycles out of the city center by 2010, and most major streets are already off limits during rush hour.

Even in Beijing, home to 11 million bicycles, more than any other city in the world, police are experimenting with a ban on a jammed street about a mile northwest of the Forbidden City. An officer there orders bicyclists to dismount; they often respond with colorful curses.

These roads used to be ours, said Du Xiaoying, 40, sneaking down the street on her black Flying Pigeon bicycle. Now, the cars have taken over. They drive too fast. They even park in our lanes. There's nothing we can do.

Traffic accidents are up sharply, with the number of fatalities rising by 70 percent in the past decade to more than 83,000 last year, making China's roads among the world's deadliest. Studies estimate that about a third of those killed are bicyclists; no one wears a helmet in China.

Naturally, the bicyclists blame the people driving cars. But the drivers insist the bicyclists are reckless, pointing out they do not need a license or a traffic-safety course to ride a bike.

I've never hit a bicycle, but they hit me all the time, complained cabby Liu Jianshu, 38, as a bicyclist careered across three lanes of traffic in front of him. A lot of these people, they're living in the past. They just go wherever they want, no matter what the rules are, because they could do that before.

Like many drivers, Liu has no patience for bicycle nostalgia. What kind of country would we be if we were all still riding bicycles? This is progress. This is development, he said. Who wants to ride a bicycle when you can drive a car?

Many Chinese agree. A recent survey in 20 cities by the Association of Chinese Customers found a third of urban families plan to buy a car within five years. Another study found most people consider knowing how to drive a car to be one of three basic and necessary skills in modern Chinese society, along with the ability to speak English and use a computer.

Such attitudes alarm environmentalists. They warn that if the percentage of the population owning cars in China reaches Western levels, there would be more automobiles here than in the rest of the world combined. Air pollution in many Chinese cities is already several times above World Health Organization standards. It, and cigarette smoking, make lung disease the leading cause of death in China.

Problems like this have led many of China's leaders to a new appreciation of the bicycle, said Liu Xiaoming, one of the nation's leading traffic engineers. It's clean. It saves energy. It's good for people's health. And it's more reliable than public transportation, he said. We can't get rid of the bicycle completely even if we tried.