BEIJING — Just a few years ago, the streets of Beijing were clogged with so many bicycles that riders sailing through an intersection looked like a school of fish moving through the water.
Today the cars have taken over. In fact, Beijing more and more is just another traffic-clogged city with Chinese characteristics. Its bike lanes are rapidly filling with parked cars, auto rickshaws spewing exhaust, and strolling pedestrians.
To many Chinese, bikes are now for losers. The iconic Beijing bicycle is a sorry one-gear affair with a metal basket on the front which breaks so regularly that every street corner seems to have a makeshift fix-it stand.
"There is a quote: ‘I would rather cry in a BMW than smile on a bike,'" says Jinhua Zhao, an urban planning professor at the University of British Columbia who's conducting a study of cycling in Beijing. He’s found that bicycle use in Beijing has dropped from about 60 percent in 1986 to 17 percent in 2010. At the same time, car use has grown 15 percent a year for the last ten years.
The loss of a bike culture is a shame, says Shannon Bufton, the Australian-born founder of an NGO called Smarter Than Car. "It’s like Venice and gondolas. They go together, Beijing and the bike," he says.
Bufton's solution? Transform the bicycle into a luxury item, like the Chanel bag, the Gucci shoes, and the Maserati car. That way, the Chinese would want to own and ride them to show they've reached the middle class.
Bufton notes that when he first started Smarter Than Car in 2010, “I gave a lot of lectures about sustainable cities and about how positive the bike was for society,” he says. “And the Chinese people said to me, ‘Well, yeah, we know that, but we just started getting interested in the car. We want to drive cars."
Before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, government officials made 50,000 rental bikes available at kiosks around the city, in part to cut down on car traffic. That effort fizzled, although government curbs on the numbers of cars driving into the city – even today, most drivers are blocked from driving into Beijing one day a week – seems to have cut down somewhat on the total cars on the road.
Smarter Than Car organized its first Beijing Bike Week in March, setting up a post in a luxury shopping mall surrounded by Ferrari, Aston Martin, and Maserati car dealers. The group showed movies about biking, ran a bike polo match, and organized a kind of scavenger hunt on bikes called an alleycat race.
Bufton is even set to open a kind of café for cyclists, which he hopes will help foster a hip bike culture in the city.
There is one demographic in Beijing that Bufton doesn’t have to work as hard to convince. More foreign residents, tired of the difficulty of finding a cab, fighting the crowds on the subway and buses, or figuring out how to pass the test for a Chinese driver’s license, are turning to bicycles. Expats, it turns out, love to wax rhapsodic about the romance of biking in Beijing. Peter Foster, a former Beijing correspondent for England’s Daily Telegraph, described in a 2009 article what he loved about riding a bike in Beijing:
You find a democratic mix in the cycle lane: the old guy puffing on his fag, barely turning the cranks; the expat-woman in a linen suit gliding serenely into Guo Mao (World Trade Centre); the tricycle affair loaded with tat for sale; the hung-over student with a mate on the back taking on the red lights.
Today Foster is based in Washington, D.C. The rapidly growing cycling culture there, he says by email, is still a far cry from Beijing, which he still misses.
"Not the pollution, or wearing a mask most days, but some of the local colour, the old guys with their birdcages dangling from the handlebars, the street vendors, the old couples where one pedals their three wheelers while the other, too lame with age, sits in the back," he writes. "By comparison D.C. is all clean and beautiful, but the view in front is also kind of sterile after Beijing - everyone is wearing helmets and swathed in flourescent yellow jackets.”