Monday 15 March 2010

Beijing - why China does not provide a cycling model for Western nations

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 ?


  1. I have noticed the same things about China being a bicycle nation out of necessity. It seems China has taken the automobile to be a symbol for economic progress, following the lead of most of the developed world. Not everyone in China can afford to drive, so this leads to disparity between the rich and poor. I hope the Chinese and developed nations wake up to the reality that automobile infrastructure is a crutch to social progress that is laced with hidden costs.

  2. If you're Chinese it looks like progress, David, just as it did in Europe half a century ago. All they're doing is following our lead.

  3. Ben, Nick, I agree with you both.

    If I was an average Chinese guy, I'd probably want a car too.

    It's rather tragic to see the social progress which has been made (that people can blog about the pollution around them is in itself a huge improvement) accompanied by such unimaginative and retrograde steps as following 1950s road building policies.

    Luckily, some people can see that there are problems.

  4. An interesting comparison between the exhaust of a waste incinerator and that of thousands of cars. How long before the heart disease goes through the roof just through lack of exercise?
    There was a item, perhaps on the BBC website, last week about the adoption of electric bikes which ended by saying how long before those are as unattractive as push bikes. Journalistic shorthand I am sure, as we all know it is not the bicycles that are unattractive.
    It is worth noting that in the UK on Saturday, there was a film about the city of Detroit, USA, showing the empty freeways following the collaspe of the car culture. Requiem for Detroit? is certainly worth watching, clearly it has not been shown in China yet. will they ahve to go through all of this before understanding it is not needed?
    Mark Garrett, Bristol UK

  5. I have made a short documentary about this phenomenon. Inductive, but still interesting maybe:

  6. Marco, thanks for the link to your film. It's a very interesting documentary (click here to view without cut and paste).

  7. Please correct me if I am wrong but I was given to understand that the Netherlands had a car ownership rate among the highest in the world. I know a few Dutch families (not a scientific study I know) and they all had at least in car often more than one. The point as I understood it was not the owning but the not using of cars that made Holland such a shining example.

  8. Kenneth: The Dutch rate of car ownership is not as high as it would be expected to be given the relatively well off population.

  9. David, compared to say Canada, wouldn't you say that car ownership in the Netherlands is relatively expensive?

    We in Canada (unfortunately) only pay $1.00 per litre for fuel, enjoy free/cheap parking in most of the country, and pay anywhere from 5-13% in tax to purchase an automobile.

    I wish car ownership were more expensive here, because it would increase cycling - but the higher cost of owning a car in the Netherlands must have some impact on the rate of cycling, no?

    I know Denmark taxes automobile purchases at 105%-180% of the value of the car. Doesn't the government in the Netherlands do something similar to discourage car ownership? (though not to the same extent as Denmark of course).

  10. James: It would indeed appear to be the case that motoring in Canada is cheaper than here in the Netherlands. However, there isn't much of a difference between the price of motoring in the Netherlands vs. the UK, and the UK's cycling rate is amongst the lowest anywhere. Lower, even, than Canada.

    That's why I think the difference in usage patterns comes down to the ease of use of different modes and is not really related that closely to the price. As you point out in your latest blog post, some places are designed in such a way that they discourage walking even a very short distance.