BEIJING – China, once called the Kingdom of Bicycles, was known for its iconic images of large groups of cyclists riding on its roads.
Those were the days during the 1960s to 1980s period when hordes of people could be seen cycling to work or for recreational purposes.
However, the situation changed in the 1990s when cycling no longer became the main mode of transport for the masses following the implementation of the national automobile production policy.
In the 1990s, bicycles accounted for 63 percent of trips in Beijing but the percentage, according to the Beijing Municipal Commission of Transport, dropped sharply to 17.8 percent in 2014.
Nevertheless, public interest in the two-wheelers has been picking up in China’s major cities since six years ago following the introduction of the dockless bike-sharing system.
In Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Xi’an and Hangzhou, cycling is on its way to becoming the favoured means of transport, thanks to the availability of the bike-sharing option that allows riders to lock and unlock a GPS-enabled bicycle using their smartphone, with the payments done via mobile applications such as Alipay and WeChat.
Over 30 companies in China are providing the bike-sharing service, among them being yourHello bike, Mobike and Ofo.
This writer, who is currently in Beijing for the China Asia Pacific Press Centre 2022 programme, decided to try out the bicycle-sharing facility and found that thousands of bicycles of all colours were available for rent at busy places like train and subway stations, bus stations and shopping centres.
All one has to do is download the bike-sharing application from a service provider and get registered. Next, the user needs to scan the QR code on the bicycle as well as activate the Bluetooth function to open its lock automatically. It is as simple as that.
After using the cycle, it has to be returned to one of the designated parking areas and locked manually. Only after this will the charge for the bicycle be deducted from the user’s e-wallet.
For this writer’s trip to and from her residence in Jianguomen, located in the city centre, and the popular Tiananmen Square which is nine kilometres away, the charge came to only 10 yuan (RM6.47).
The city authorities have provided special infrastructure for the convenience of cyclists. It includes dedicated cycling lanes that are wide enough to even accommodate cars and have traffic signals reflecting the bicycle symbol. Even traffic personnel are stationed there to control and monitor the traffic flow on the lanes concerned.
Fellow participant of the China Asia Pacific Press Centre 2022 programme Ntsikelelo Que Qoyo, 30, from South Africa, told the writer that he learned to ride a bicycle within three days after his arrival in Beijing.
He said back in his country, bicycles are hard to spot on the roads as they are rarely used as a mode of transportation.
“Here in Beijing, I see thousands of cycles on sidewalks. Cycling is not only cheap but allows us to get to our destination faster than walking,” he said.
The concept of bicycle sharing is also an effective solution to the first/last mile poser as they connect the users to public transport hubs such as train and bus stations or metro stations.
Beijing’s subway stations, for example, have rows of bicycles in their outdoor parking zones that commuters can use to head to their destinations.
Syukri Azmi, a Malaysian who has been residing in Beijing for five years, said he would rather ride a bicycle or use the subway than buy a car as public transportation is cheaper, faster and more efficient.
Cycling, moreover, is a pollution-free mode of transport as bicycles, unlike vehicles, do not release harmful emissions such as carbon dioxide that pollute the atmosphere and contribute to climate change.
Encouraging more people to take up cycling is also in line with China’s pledge to be carbon neutral by 2060.
Malaysian journalist Vincent Cheong Jia Wei, who is also here for the China Asia Pacific Press Centre 2022 programme, said he found a noticeable improvement in Beijing’s air quality compared to four years ago.
Over the past few years, China has been earnestly encouraging people to revert to cycling by developing cycling plans and building the necessary infrastructure in urban areas.
In February 2017, China opened its first elevated bicycle pathway in the city of Xiamen called Bicycle Skyway, which is 7.6 kilometres long.
Beijing too has a 6.5km-long bicycle “highway” linking the Huilongguan residential area to the high-tech industrial zone in Haidian district.
Incidentally, in May this year, 193 members of the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution that supported the promotion of bicycles as a means of combating climate change. The resolution was proposed by Turkmenistan and was passed unanimously.
The resolution came amid the success of China’s own policy of encouraging the use of bicycles as a mode of transport to address the issue of environmental degradation and contribute to sustainable development.
However, the authorities now have another issue to contend with – the deluge of bicycles on its roads. According to local media reports, the Beijing Municipal Commission of Transport has decided to cap the number of shared bicycles at 800,000 in the city’s six districts this year.
Bike-sharing service providers Meituan Bike, Hello Global and Qingju have also pledged to limit the number of bicycles in Beijing to 400,000, 210,000 and 190,000 respectively.
The commission said the decision to limit the number of bicycles was made with the aim of creating a fair, open and competitive environment for the shared cycling industry.
(The writer, Hasnah Jusid, is currently in Beijing for the five-month-long China Asia Pacific Press Centre 2022 programme on the invitation of the China Public Diplomacy Association.)
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