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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.

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