Last of the bicycles?

Last of the bicycles?, Elosua Miguel

The increase of purchase capacity of urban residents has led to a massive increase in the number of cars in circulation within Chinese cities. The once ubiquitous bicycle yields to the (theoretically) more convenient car. In the space of seven years, the number of registered cars in the city of Beijing doubled, surpassing 5 million in 2011.1 By July 2012 there were about 72 million registered cars on the mainland, from just 10 million in 2003.2 At the same time, the city has greatly expanded. Its area spreads over 17,000 square kilometres (almost three times the size of Shanghai). However, although the city has experienced a distinct suburbanisation of the population, more than 60% of the total population lives in 8% of its total area, that is, in Central Beijing (within the third ring). Public transport has expanded in the same fashion. Of the total fifteen existing lines, thirteen were added to the network in the last ten years.

However, the quest for convenience and sustainability might mean the resurgence of bicycles. Commuting time and pollution has greatly increased and the government has started restricting car use to tackle pollution. Some residents might begin to consider it a good idea to dust off their old bicycle. Unlike some European cities, there is no need for added construction in China, since most of the main roads have dedicated bicycle lanes and most cities are flat like a pancake (this is not the case of Chongqing certainly, which is the reason why the motorbike industry developed rapidly there). Likewise, some cities have launched bike share schemes. In 2013, the Beijing municipal government funded a bike share with 14,000 bicycles distributed across 520 stations. According to the website, the program has not been very successful so far, with less than one rental a day per bicycle. It attributes part of this failure to the inconvenient location of the stations. Likewise, it reveals a change on the perception of bicycles. Owning a bike was a luxury just thirty years ago, but it became an undesirable, “common” means of transport. Car ownership is still a status symbol for many. The bigger the better, a philosophy which appears all over the world. Perhaps circumstances will make residents reconsider the bike as synonymous of convenience and simplicity, the ultimate sophistication according to Leonardo da Vinci. No doubt there would then be plenty of sophisticated riders commuting by bike and, consequently, air quality would be greatly improved.

Cycle rickshaw, Elosua MiguelCycle rickshaw in Wenchuan, Sichuan. Photo taken in March 2013.






  1. Source URL:, accessed on 15 January 2014. []
  2. Source URL:, accessed 15 January 2014. []

Miguel Elosua

Spanish qualified lawyer; PhD in Chinese Law. UrbaChina Research Officer. Has lived in China since 2006.

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