Tonight I watched the Tegenlicht documentary De Regenmakers, a very interesting programme about the growth of environmental activism in China, focusing on four activists.
One of the people featured was Zhao Lei in Beijing. She was protesting against the pollution due to a local incinerator, but the footage included video of the quite remarkable traffic jams now commonplace in the city. This reminded me that I was going to write about what has happened to cycling in China.
It used to be that when talking about the cycling rate of the Netherlands we had to explain that it was first in the world only if you disregarded China, which was a special case. However, that's now changed. As The Guardian pointed out a few days ago, "Twenty years ago, four out of five residents in the Chinese capital pedalled to work through one of the world's best systems of bicycle lanes. But the modern passion for cars has made two-wheeled transport so treacherous, dirty and unfashionable that barely a fifth of the population dares to use lanes that are now routinely blocked by parked cars and invaded by vehicles attempting to escape from the jams on the main roads."
The thing is, cycling in China was never motivated in the same way as cycling in The Netherlands. The Chinese cycled out of necessity. They could not afford cars, and perhaps they weren't available to buy even if they could afford them. This has changed, and a generation who wanted a car but were forced to cycle went and bought cars.
The Netherlands is a completely different case. The rate of car ownership here has not climbed at the same rate as in other countries in large part because bicycles offer such a pleasant experience and a convenient way of getting about. The result is a very high discrepancy between the rate of car ownership and car affordability vs. other comparable countries. i.e. more people make a positive choose not to own a car here than anywhere else.
Even Chinese news sources now recognise the problem in China: The first concern is safety of cyclists as bicycle lanes have been edged out or phased out and bikes must use faster and more dangerous auto lanes. i.e. A lack of subjective safety is also working against cycling.
And this is what Beijing looks like today (there are plenty of other videos on youtube, including this one showing the technique for making a left turn by car).
Roads have been built on an epic scale, favouring cars even if they don't really provide much in the way of convenience. Some people do still cycle, but in conditions like this they probably wish they had cars too.
Does this really look like progress ?