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Bikes, Cars, and back again...

China's bumpy ride towards vehicular maturity

When communist China emerged from years of civil war into the new fangled reality of the 1950’s, three things characterised the desires of the modern Chinese man: the wristwatch, the radio and the bicycle. While the West continued to consume and pollute, in the east the Chinese were finding their feet – and those feet were pushing pedals.

Decades later and times have changed. China’s economic ‘miracle’ has had many effects, not least a monumental rise in standards of living and its ascension to the second largest economy in the world. The humble bicycle, valued when the cards were down, was cast aside in favour of modernity and petrol powered transport.

For the western facing middle classes, cycling was a symbol of backwardness to be avoided at all costs. Between 1995 and 2005 the number of cyclists in China fell by 235 million, while the number of private vehicles on the road rose by 4.7 million. Regional authorities even began closing cycle lanes on the proviso that bikes presented dangers to the growing numbers of cars on the road – Shanghai actually banned cyclists from downtown areas in 2004.

From the safe and clean preserves of cyclists, China’s cities transformed into spluttering metropolises, struggling to contain their burgeoning numbers of inhabitants.

As was the case in Europe and the USA, the desire for mass car ownership overrode the realities of sufficient public transportation and unsustainable levels of pollutants.

While cycling in Europe has undergone a postmodern, green-fingered resurgence, cycling in China is still very much a necessity for the majority engaging in it. It is the only vehicle the poor can afford, and the car lingers on as the representative asset of a growing inequality divide.

Centralised Cycling:

If China’s pseudo-communist regime has a strength, it’s surely their ability to change their mind, tell everyone to ignore the fact they’ve done so, and then enforce the changed stance quickly and efficiently.

Luckily for cyclists, in 2011 Beijing’s eye chose our sport as a cog within a complex solution to the interlocking issues of massive pollution, absurd congestion and deteriorating public health. Hangzhou now has the biggest bike-sharing program in the world, aiming for 175,000 in the near future. Beijing itself is expanding its bike lanes, and hopes to have 50,000 shared bicycles on the streets by 2015.

But China won’t succeed on government input alone, it needs cycling to be established as an elite sport and homegrown stars to emerge and lead this drive. More than anything, greater uptake within the sporting sphere could help break the stigma that places cycling as the need of the poor rather than the pursuit of the environmentally mature.

The Future:

China is at a crucial point in its cycling development, and if successful could export its positive change worldwide. As the leading emerging market of the last century, it certainly has a part to play as a standard bearer for other emerging powers struggling with the trade off between pollution and growth. It is already the world leader in renewable energy development, and if this environmental positivity can be expanded to two-wheeled transportation, it could have huge success in reducing the world’s pollution, improving health and invigorating its population.

It seems then that China’s passion for cycling comes not from looking to it's past, but from conceiving a possible future. A future we, and indeed everyone, should wholeheartedly support.

Picture by: David Corio

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