Once known as the “kingdom of bicycles”, China’s hallmark was its people who commuted everywhere and for everything—work, shop, fun—by bicycle. Now, China’s industrialization has been accompanied by growth in gasoline and diesel-fuel dependent vehicles and the decline of bike usage. From 1995 to 2005, the number of bikes declined by 35% in Chinese cities, while cars and other motor vehicles doubled.
The rapid shift from bike to car has left air polluted and roads congested. In China, pollutant levels have skyrocketed alongside urban population growth, with particulate matter (e.g. PM2.5; airborne molecules with diameter smaller than 2.5 micrometers) levels in Beijing reaching 50 times the World Health Organization’s recommended limit in 2015. Motor vehicles in that city have contributed significantly to the spike in PM2.5 and other air pollutant levels, reportedly accounting for 31% of all air pollution. PM2.5 poses especially severe health risks, like lung cancer, due to its tiny size and consequent ease in penetrating deeper into the lungs. In China, the rise in air pollutants like PM2.5 and ozone has been estimated to contribute to 1.3 million premature deaths in 2010.
To combat this environmental change and public health threat, Chinese cities have invested increasingly in public transport systems like bike-sharing. Bike-sharing systems offer a means to reverse the transition from bike to car, addressing both environmental and commuting concerns, and have grown immensely in China in the past decade. The first major models started in European cities Amsterdam and Copenhagen in 1968 and 1995, respectively, and offered a service through which city-goers could easily borrow bikes to commute around the city. Since then, bike-sharing systems have grown rapidly, with almost one million bikes in over 855 cities by the end of 2014. Boston boasts its own Hubway system. Avoiding the hassle of a lengthy rental system and offering short-term travel options, bike-sharing stations are located throughout the city so that a person can easily pick up a bike for travel from station A to station B, where another person can then use the bike. By increasing exercise, reducing emissions, and alleviating traffic congestion, cycling has potential benefits for both the individual and the broader community.
China now has the biggest and largest number of bike-sharing programs, with 16 of the largest 20 systems located in Chinese cities in 2013. Its largest program, the Hangzhou Public Bicycle Service, boasts 84,100 public bikes at 3,572 stations around the city as of May 2016. The system is straightforward— pick up a bike from any station and you can ride the first hour for free (after a refundable 500-yuan ($75) deposit). Need another hour? Pay 1 Chinese yuan (15 cents) for a second hour, or as some locals have figured out, return and re-rent the bike at any nearby station for another free hour. Given its ease and cheapness (the city government funds most of it), it’s no surprise that an average of 310,000 people use the system every day. Indeed, even those who own cars use Hangzhou’s bike-sharing system at a surprisingly high rate.
While bike-sharing has succeeded in Hangzhou, widespread adoption in other Chinese cities still remains to be seen. After the initial excitement of the 2008 Olympic games, Beijing struggled in sustaining its bike-share programs, as bike-share companies suffered heavy financial loses due to minimal government support and little demand. Shanghai similarly struggled in 2014, with residents choosing to opt for dirt-cheap illegal taxis or to buy their own bikes instead of paying the deposit for a bike-share card. Now in 2016, both cities are working to expand their bike-sharing programs and show promise.
If bike-sharing takes off throughout China like it has in Hangzhou, what’s next? For one, it looks like the private sector has also begun to notice the potential of bike-sharing, with Didi Chuxing, China’s car-sharing equivalent of Uber, investing tens of millions of dollars in a bike sharing startup called Ofo. This could mean expansion of bike-sharing programs to areas government systems haven’t managed to hit, as well as fancier biking accessories and functionalities. GPS-guided smart bikes and electric-powered assist bikes are two other market avenues that could receive public attention if funded by bike-share companies. Regardless of how bike-sharing systems change in China, it’s evident that they have made their mark on China’s transport systems, on the way to returning the country to the “kingdom of bicycles” – and, hopefully, clean air – once more.
Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on October 4, 2016.