Beijing goes back to being the ‘bicycle kingdom’

August 5th, 2008 - 9:10 am ICT by IANS  

Beijing, Aug 5 (Xinhua) Zhao Xiaoming, 47, a manager at an overseas-funded company, used to sit comfortably behind the wheel of his car every day and drive to work in downtown Beijing. Since July 20, when the Olympic host city of 3.29 million vehicles imposed car use controls, Zhao - like hundreds of thousands of his compatriots - is riding his bicycle on alternate days, and feeling fine on it.

Until Sep 20, private cars are allowed on the roads on alternate days, even on one day, odd the next. Zhao’s car has an even number plate. So on the odd-number days, he joins the streams of cyclists, reviving the Beijing’s former reputation as the “bicycle kingdom”.

That reputation faded with soaring car ownership in China’s second largest city, which has a population of more than 16 million.

“At the beginning, I wasn’t used to going out without my car, but my daughter encouraged me. Now I’m fine on the bike,” says Zhao.

“Riding along Chang’an Avenue (the main east-west route), there’s a soft breeze. The street is so wide and I see so much more. I enjoy it,” says Zhao, who gave up riding a bicycle about six years ago.

The city authorities say the restrictions, along with an earlier ban on vehicles that fail to meet emissions standards, would drive two million cars off the roads, easing traffic and improving air quality for the Games.

In an open letter to residents, the city government urged them to use public transport, cycle or simply walk. A survey by the Beijing Social Facts and Public Opinion Survey Centre shows 24 percent of motorists have taken up cycling since the restrictions came into force.

Another survey by the city transport authority showed that 153 of the 743 polled - almost 21 percent - now pedal to work.

Many of the former motorists have bought new bikes, but many others hire one.

The low cost and convenience of bicycle rentals has seen more than 10 hire companies spring up in the last three years.

The business has been boosted by a combination of Beijing’s commitment to a “green Olympics”, rising public awareness of the harmful health effects of an over-reliance on cars, and the vehicle restrictions.

In August last year, the municipal government initiated a campaign to promote more use of “public bicycles”.

The Beijing Tourism Bureau has ordered star-rated hotels to provide rental bikes for their guests during the Games.

Wang Yong, chairman of Bicycle Rental, one of the city’s first and largest rental firms set up in 2005, says the company’s outlets had jumped from 16 in early 2006 to 200.

About 50,000 bicycles are available at its outlets across Beijing, Wang says. In the downtown area, Bicycle Rental has 76 outlets with more than 7,000 bikes for hire.

“We have seen a notable increase in business, thanks to the Olympics and the car restrictions,” Wang says. “We hope to provide more services and that more people choose to cycle in order to save energy, cut emissions and ease Beijing’s traffic congestion.”

The company’s website shows bikes can be hired from an hour to a year. One hour costs five yuan, four hours 10 yuan, and a day 20 yuan. For a year, it costs 100 yuan. A 400-yuan deposit is required in each case.

Wang says the city government needs to solve many problems before many more people choose to ride a bike.

Beijing’s roads have widened while cycle lanes have become narrower, and many bike lanes have become side lanes for cars or bus lanes, Wang says. Cyclists can also have trouble finding parking places.

The municipal authorities have made some progress in solving the problem. Over the last three months, they have built more than 2,500 bicyle parking lots, with a total of 750,000 spaces. Most of the parking areas are around Olympic venues and designated hotels for the Games.

The transport authority says residents and visitors alike will find cycling a very convenient mode of transport during the Olympics.

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