Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Musings: Bikes no longer welcome on China's roads

When I was studying in China in the early 1990s, I’d often unwind after a long day of classes by hoping on my rusty black Yongjiu bike (a Chinese knockoff of a Raliegh from the WWII era) and cruise around the city. I never worried about traffic because bikes ruled the road. The city’s streets were designed for bikes with wide lanes demarcated by barriers made of iron bars.

The scene of seemingly millions of people pedaling down China's streets has become an iconic image for the nation. But it's an outdated one. So much has changed since my student days 20 years ago.

The changes are most obvious in big cities like Guangzhou. Most residents - especially those in the swelling middle class - have long given up commuting by bike. The city has a clean, new and speedy subway system. Buses are also cheap and convenient. And cars are more affordable for the swelling middle class. Autos rule the roads now.

Two years ago, city officials announced with great pride that the number of cars on Guangzhou's roads has hit the 1 million mark. When the country held a “No Car Day,” Guangzhou was one of the few major cities that decided not to participate. This year, it joined the campaign, but it was a half-hearted effort. A few roads were blocked off by police, but when they left after rush hour, the cars took over again.

Guangzhou wants its future to be tied to the automobile. The city aspires to be the Detroit of China and has factories that make Honda and Nissan cars. Last year, 180,000 new vehicles hit the city's roads, the government said. That's nearly 500 a day.

There seems to be a quiet campaign to push cyclists off the roads. One of the best examples of this is a bike lane near my home that's marked with a thick white line, a sign and a symbol of a bike painted on the pavement. But the line has recently been bisected by short white lines that chop the lane up into parking spaces for cars. The lane is for bikers as long as motorists aren't using it.

On some roads, police with whistles and flags order cyclists to pull off the road and ride on the sidewalk. I usually ignore them.

The Chinese view the car to be a symbol of modernity – evidence the country has made it to the big time. They scoff at foreigners who say China is making the same mistake as other countries, namely America, who fell in love with the car. I discussed the subject with a Chinese friend who had a new mini van. He said, “When we rode bikes, foreigners laughed at us for being so poor and backward. Now that we can afford cars, they say we’re being wasteful polluters.”

I argued that bike-friendly cities like Amsterdam or Copenhagen are truly modern and civilized. But this seems so silly to most Chinese.

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