The Death of the Bicycle in China

Cities

It was July 2002. I was in the process of planning my first ever trip to China. Even the thought of just mentioning the name of the country was one of sheer joy and amazement. Without a doubt I was excited. Who wouldn’t be if they had lived all their life in a society where the only real exposure to Chinese culture and food was your local takeaway or Chinatown in London?! I was very much looking forward to eating real Chinese food, and seeing all things “Chinese.” Things which I had grown up reading in geography or tourism books when I was at school; Things like people wearing pointy triangle shaped hats in the rice fields, people wearing dark blue Mao suits and caps, the devout praying in a Buddhist temple, the Great Wall of China, and, of course, seeing Chinese people riding bicycles.

Come August I found myself in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou. I was in for a shock. Everything seemed different from what I had seen in books and had imagined China to be like. I did not see people wearing pointy triangle shaped hats, I did not see people wearing the traditional Mao suits (well, I did, but only some of the older generation or those who may have been former communist soldiers), and perhaps most surprisingly, I saw lots of cars, scooters, motorcycles and buses… more than one would see in European countries. Where were all the bicycles? After all, I was under the impression that China was the country of the bicycle. I was shocked to see maybe just a handful of the two wheeled machines being ridden by what looked like university students or high school kids. There were no crowds of cyclists as I had imagined.

For sure if I had come to China in, say, 1950 or even the early 1980s, I would have seen people riding nothing but the traditional bicycle. For just over a hundred years crowds of cyclists crammed the dusty roads of Chinese cities—a pictorial representation as symbolic of China as the Great Wall. Sadly, nowadays, after decades of stable economic improvements have allowed the country’s transportation infrastructure to modernize, the number of bicycles on China’s roads has dramatically decreased.  

Don’t get me wrong. People still do ride bicycles, but of course, these are perhaps individuals who cannot afford a car or don’t need a vehicle for one reason or another. This lifestyle turnaround—away from the bicycle—is a diminutive, but significant, landmark in the speedy revolution of Chinese life. Like so many other phenomena of 21st century China, the difference of opinion is showered with inconsistent arguments between social and economic classes, one that aggravates diverse thoughts and opinions among the Chinese about how their country is evolving both culturally and economically. There are those who highly prize the modern automobile as a status symbol because they feel “my friend/neighbor has a car, why shouldn’t I be able to afford one?” This mentality invariably leads to the poor old bike's decline, and in fact, its demise is heavily mourned by ecologists throughout China and around the world. Of course, there are also those (like me!) who long for a moment in time when the streets were not so crowded and actually wished to witness the “quiet” China before all these mean machines of power came into force.

I will never forget the occasion when I rode a bicycle in Beijing. I cycled from my home in Shangdi District to the Forbidden City, a distance of around 15km. I marvelled at the chance of being able to ride in the official “bicycle country,” although the sad irony was that, in my estmiation, 97 percent of the traffic around me consisted of all kinds of vehicles other than bicycles. I was even taken over by a Ferrari once! Yes, it seems that some Chinese people have so much money in their banks, but since they cannot take it out of the country they spend most of it in style inside China!

But don’t let me deceive you; the bicycle is not exactly Chinese history (yet). For students and the millions who live in the rural areas, it is still the primary mode of transportation. Astonishing as it may seem, there are still nearly ten times as many bicycles in China (580 million) as the population of the United Kingdom (60 million).

One main problem for cyclists in modern China is pollution. I spoke to Fulai Wu, 55, a former colleague of mine in Guangzhou who said: “It's just not the same anymore. When I was at school in the 1950s, the whole family used to ride bikes, even on weekends and even to go shopping. It was healthy and many people were fit. But now the air is appalling; we have to wear masks and everybody wants to buy a car.” Wu’s comments are not surprising; who wants to ride a bike if their health is damaged by soot and other pollution? I have even met Chinese students in cities such as Shenzhen and Shanghai who think that it doesn’t look cool to ride a bicycle. Unsurprisingly, bicyclists point the finger at drivers for causing accidents, pollution and generally making life a misery for cyclists in modern China. For their part, drivers are adamant that cyclists are irresponsible, annoying, and are the cause of slow traffic. Interestingly enough, drivers point out that cyclists do not need a license to ride a bike, and thus are responsible for causing accidents with cars.

There are many who believe bicycles should not be used because they want to see China moving forward as a developed country. They see the bicycle as a symbol of yesteryear. Still, others are adamant that the bicycle should be a national symbol of pride and could not be eliminated from Chinese roads even if they tried to do so. Nevertheless, the fact is, for better or for worse, everyone—to a degree—has accepted that the bicycle in China is a dying breed.

August 31, 2009

China