Wednesday, September 06, 2006

How Cycling is Changing in China, August 30, 2006

August 30, 2006--A terrific article by writer Bill Donahue published on the Sierra Club website this month details the how modernization in China is crowding out cyclists.
Orignally from Oregon where he rides a $1,000 Trek, Donahue traveled to Shanghai to see for himself how the increase in car usage, and the closing of many roads to cyclists, was changing the ease with which cyclists can ride.
The importance of cycling in the Chinese economy since the Cultural Revolution began a rapid decline once the country declared itself politically open to capitalism in the late 1990's. Bicycles are still the primary form of transportation in China, with a population of 1.3 billion people, and 470 million bicycles, compares to the U.S. where we have a population of 298 million people and 100 million bikes--the number of bikes per person is .33 in the U.S. and .36 in China.
But these numbers mask the fact that the automobile is pushing out cyclists on major streets and thoroughfares. Rather than protest the draconian road closures, and bullying by motorists on the roads, the Chinese, long used to a system of upper and lower class distinctions, according to Mr. Donahue, take their shoving aside in stride.
Spending on roadways and highways is now unprecedented in China which at $40 billion a year should result in "the world's most extensive interstate-highway system" by 2008, said Donahue. He also notes that last year "China became the world's second-largest car market, selling nearly 6 million vehicles."
The cars are sold mostly to members of the newly rich capitalist class, who by all accounts prefer Mercedes and BMW's. That could be a good thing said Donahue, because those cars are cleaner and pollute less.
Also on his trip Donahue hires an interpretor named Gorden to go on the road with him--by Chinese bicycle--and Gorden turns out to be running a highly successful prostitution business with three cellphones he carries with him. He doesn't fire his pimp-interpretor, but notes that as part of the rising class, he already looks down on cyclists as poor and lower class, and distinguishes himself instead by riding the city's crammed public transportation system.
Dressed in a black velvet jacket, Gorden yearns for a BMW, Mercedes, but he also liked the Jaguar hood symbol. "Just a large cat--very cool. But I think I will buy something practical like a Honda Accord or an Elantra, or maybe a Toyota Crown or a Lexus," he said.

There is still time: only about eight cars were owned per 1,000 people in 2004, "which is approximately where the United States stood in 1920," said Donahue. Yet car ownership is increasing by 15 percent per year, faster than anywhere else in the world, he added.
Donahue also visited the big factory where the local Forever bicycles are manafactured where Forever CEO Gu Juexin explained that he no longer will be manufacturing bikes for the Chinese market, but for Wal-Mart in the U.S. But Donahue said, the Chinese government has created some bike routes, closed off tangential roads to cars, and improved mass transit. They also offer government incentives to purchase non-polluting electric bikes which are increasingly found on the roads there--often pushing aside human pedaled bikes.

Hindsight is 20/20 they say, and Americans know that too many cars results in too much traffic--and eventually standstill. The movement backwards to create more bike lanes is oppressively difficult, as we all know. Will China find the vision to make a halt halfway in their march towards modernization, or will they fall into the same trap we did?

Read Donahue's report here.

SELECTED STATISTICS On China and the U.S. (from Donahue's report):
China vs. / U.S.
Population 1.3 billion / 298 million
Projected population in 2025 1.4 billion / 350 million
Average annual income $1,500 / $44,000
Projected income in 2025 $10,488 / $82,000
Number of bikes 470 million / 100 million
Number of private passenger vehicles 13 million / 144 million
Annual percentage increase in number of private
passenger vehicles 15% / 3%
Barrels of oil consumed daily 6.5 million / 20 million
Percentage of world's energy
consumption 13% / 23%
Tons of carbon dioxide emitted in 2003 3.5 billion / 5.9 billion
Percentage of world's carbon
dioxide emissions 14% / 24%
Year that China is expected to surpass the United States
in carbon emissions: 2025

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