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China: Beijing by bike and the city's fight against air pollution

Beijing mobility at a glance

There are two main developments that dominate traffic in Beijing in recent years – and they are the same for most bigger cities in China – one: Population growth, from 10 million in 1990 the city doubled to 20 in 2010 (click here for population dynamics in all China provinces). Two: Private cars are extremely popular in China – so the amount of cars per inhabitant is growing. In Beijing in 1997 there was one car per 13 people 2008 it was already one per 5 inhabitants, 2014 the total was 5,59 million cars (all car related numbers according to China Daily printed ed. 14/15.3.20915).

More congestion and bad air quality are the consequences. The latter being additionally influenced by pollution coming from the surrounding Hebei province and its vast burning of coal for energy and steel production (Heibei produces more steel than the US and EU together). Levels of harmful PM2.5 particles in Beijing are often over 300 micro grams per cubic meter, which definitely is a lot!

In my three days stay, the values were continuously over 200. Many people refrain from outdoor activities at these levels and cycling around I could feel why, it is very unpleasant especially when breathing a little heavier due to exercise. To get an idea what the numbers mean here is a comparison: The EU-air quality directive sets 25 micrograms per cubic meter as target for European cities, so Beijing is tenfold above that many days a year!

After neglecting the issue for a long time, the Chinese government is now relatively open about the problem, nearly every Beijinger has a real time smartphone app that displays pollution levels (Ups, saying that the government is open about the issue I just found that all international articles concerning premature deaths due to air pollution in China are blocked. So I cannot provide a link about that topic for now).

So what? Bike it!

Back to “me in Beijing” – moving around on a bike in Beijing is very convenient and fun – despite of the above. Especially when you have a nice bicycle and are guided by someone as well orientated as Ines you are definitely faster than cars. Wide bike lanes still exist from the old days and are somewhat respected. If they are full of parked cars you can always use the car lanes and sidewalks, just pay attention to the many others around you. Generally everybody does what they like to a certain extent. It’s a “negotiated flow” as Shannon, a colleague activist of Ines called it (together they do “Smarter than a car” an initiative to promote cycling in Beijing). So even when cars are stuck, sneaking through on a bicycle is always possible. Also the atmosphere on the roads is less aggressive than in many European cities – car drivers are usually quite careful and drive rather slowly, which both might be because it’s many peoples first car that you see on the road.

At night time is when it is best – which is why Ines organizes night rides every once in a while. So if you ever make it to Beijing rent a bicycle at Ines store or elsewhere and tour around at night. At day time you can even ride to the Chinese wall it’s only around 50k (I didn’t do it because it started to rain for the first time in months and so the streets were full of black oily grease when I was about to leave). So no Chinese wall for me.

Back to policy – what the city does to curb congestion and pollution

The trend to have more cars and more people in the city is an obvious problem. And despite doubtful measures such as the 7th ring road, the government does do some quite strong measures to go against it. They limit the use of fuel vehicles e.g. by:

  • not allowing any fuel scooter or trike into the city (it’s so much nicer to have only e-scooters around you when you cycle!)
  • not allowing fuel trucks into the city until 10pm (this is my personal favourite)
  • on polluted days allowing only cars with odd or even numbers on the road (I am not so convinced of that measure in terms of social justice – rich people have two cars – and ratio of cost and benefit, I was told that some people just don’t bring kids to school when they cannot drive)
  • restricting the number of new license plates for fuel cars, you have to play a lottery and can’t get a car of you don’t win
  • Give high subsidies when purchasing electric trucks or cars

In particular the ban of trucks has brought out a spectacular mode of goods delivery in Beijing and many other Chinese cities as Shannon pointed out: From any Chinese city to another on you can get goods delivered within 24 hours – from a hub near the airport or train station this works completely electrified on small e-trikes, they maneuver well in narrow streets and make no noise and pollution on the spot! (Having lobbied for sustainable inner city logistics and cleaner air in EU cities in a VCD project the last two years, I have to say that this is ground breaking! Any EU city who copies that will be the next European Green capital for sure!

Cycling and public transport

At the same time the government invests in public transport – starting from 2 metro lines in 2002, now there are 17 (see metro plan among the fotos above and Wikipedia for more details). The Beijing network is the busiest in the world and the second largest after Shanghai – it does around 10 million trips per day, which I would guesstimate as a modal share of around 12,5% (supposing the usual; that every citizen does around 4 trips a day, so 20 million inhabitants altogether do around a total of 80 million trips per day,, then 10 million are 12,5%).

The network does however not nearly meet the demand and even though it is to grow further until 2020 many say that it is poorly planned and was started too late in the process of the cities’ growth (Shanghai apparently did better in that sense). Further the city started a trial with electric battery fueled buses in march 2015 and runs hundreds of electric trolley buses.

In terms of bike policy it’s all about stopping the dramatic downward slope – from 62% in 1986 the modal share declined to 30% in 2005 and further to 16% in 2010 (see this fact sheet of the German GIZ).

The city doesn’t do pro cycling campaigns or other strong commitments for cycling, however to rise the number of cyclists it has installed a new public sharing system in 2012. The first hour is free of charge! Renting works comfortably via a Transport IC card (also good for metro). In my impression the number of bicycles and rental stations seem to be really high, they were every 2nd corner. However, compared to other cities I have seen lately (e.g. Taipeh and Lyon) the usage was not so abundant. There is few official information about the system available online, but this blog article gives some insights. Also the above mentioned GIZ fact sheet is helpful.

Cycling infrastructure wise, the issue is to maintain the existing network of cycle paths and prevent them from being blocked by parked vehicles. Further, as far as I saw, there needs to be a strategy on bike parking – there are hardly any good facilities – this makes bike use less comfortable and theft a serious and annoying issue.

Summing up, the city should definitely do more to make cycling more popular and preserve it’s rich cycling heritage. This job should not only be left to passionate activists. However when comparing Beijing’s actions for cleaner air, e.g. the investment in public transport and the policy to curb fuel cars in the city to what EU cities do I really wish, the latter would take up Beijing’s pace.

Blog article by Wasilis von Rauch, former Project manager European Biking Cities and VCD Board Member.

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