Wiki Wednesday: Beijing

All the overhead shots of the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube on NBC’s Olympic coverage don’t leave much room for views of Beijing’s streets. But that’s where much of the commotion about smog, absentee athletes and particle masks originates. While the city has taken the unwieldy step of rationing license plates to clear the skies (until the Games leave town, at least), air quality could have been drastically improved by transportation planning with greater foresight.

In the StreetsWiki entry on Beijing, contributor Meg Saggese looks at the decline of bicycling as the city’s dominant mode of transportation, and its prospects for revival:

beijing.jpgThe hordes of bicycles that ruled Beijing’s streets even two decades ago, however, are quickly becoming the stuff of nostalgia. In the 1990s, around half a billion bikes were still in use throughout the country. At the time, families in Beijing chose bicycles for 60 percent of their trips. By 2007, that figure was down to 20 percent. The culprit? Every day, a thousand more cars hit the pavement. As a result, bicycling has become a perilous affair on streets where vehicles predominate and traffic laws are poorly enforced. But only a few of those who have stopped biking can afford a car. The vast majority are forced to dismount by the rising danger in the streets and the worsening air quality of the city. Recently, even prominent leaders within the environmental community and the bike industry have decided to stop riding, citing the increased hazards.[3]

Many observers are tempted to applaud this transformation as the outcome of newly-acquired affluence and to reject the memory of bicycle-packed thoroughfares as a sign of former poverty. But some press accounts tell a different story. Immersed in congestion and gridlock, many residents feel betrayed by the false promise of automobiles. The city center comes to a standstill at rush hour, and the air is dangerous to breathe. Returning to bicycles becomes harder and harder with every new car.

We’ll see after the Olympics whether the Communist Party’s newfound enthusiasm for clear skies translates into more bike-friendly policies for Beijing.

As always, don’t be shy about editing the post. Join the Livable Street Network to contribute.

  • I spent a couple of weeks in Beijing last summer. The bicycle situation is not as bad as this post makes it out to be. Most of the major streets in Beijing have bicycle lanes separated by physical barriers (in most cases an actual raised median) from street traffic. There are still typically scores of bikes at any given intersection, queued up waiting to cross. There are also still hundreds of “hutong” streets that are totally off limits to vehicle traffi, but open to bikes/peds only. They’re basically alleyways that have developed into full-scale commercial/residential streets over time. One interesting aspect is that maybe close to half of the bicycles in Beijing are electric.

    Yes, it is true that there are also a lot of cars. But there are no freeways in or going through Central Beijing, so most of the traffic is really more towards the fringes. The central city is far more bike and ped friendly than any place I’ve seen here. There are also exclusive bus lanes on all major bus lines, with all-door boarding and decent bus stop furniture.

    It is also true that the direction in which the country is headed is not good from an environmental perspective, and I suppose if I had been to Beijing two decades ago it would’ve been much better in terms of lack of cars, pollution, etc. But I also think it’s a bit hyperbolic to paint it as being horrible for bikes/peds, when it fact it’s still far superior to what we have here.

  • The other thing is that, to be blunt, Asian drivers are more aggressive than American drivers. There is very little sense of courtesy in Asia and in Taiwan, drivers routinely try to squeeze in a left turn as soon as the light turns green and motorcycles and scooters will just swarm all around you in order to get to the next red light. Scooters are just as dangerous to pedestrians and bicyclists as cars, because of their high rate of acceleration. In Taiwan, you’ll see motor scooters motoring through night markets and even indoor produce markets. That is probably worse for human powered vehicles, especially since the assumption there is that faster traffic has the right of way.

  • While China tries to emulate our automobile/gas/consumerism style of life, we’re possibly going in the opposite direction. My evidence?

    I’ve just started a business importing bicycles (like the ones in the picture above) to L.A., from China. The bikes are China’s “Flying Pigeon” brand. You can check them out here: http://flyingpigeon-la.com

    Sorry for the shameless, self-interested, plug.

  • Beijing is the most wonderful place to leave .. all the electronics good are available at cheep rates. 

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