China: Keep Them Pigeons Rolling!

For all the huffing and puffing we do about China’s environmental woes, it's worth remembering that old-fashioned conservation, efficiency and reuse have been staples of Chinese living before green was anything but a lovely color. Perhaps there is no more elegant and high tech emblem of that lifestyle than the bicycle. In the late 80s, China’s bike population pushed 500 million, and today you can hardly get around a Chinese city without an old Flying Pigeon or a sleek new Dahon folding bike.

And yet, one need only take a look at the air, or at Beijing’s incredible traffic jams, or the record-breaking automobile accidents across China, to see that the country is slowly losing its title as the Bicycle Kingdom. Indeed, the Chinese government estimates that the number of cars on China's roads in 2004 was 20 times that of 1978; presently, Beijing adds 1000 new cars to its streets every day. As incomes have risen in recent years, driving the demand for cars, governments in cities like Shanghai even began banning electric scooters from roads and closing bike lanes to make room for big new buildings and highways.

That’s why it was so refreshing to hear last week that the government has ordered that all sacrificed bike lanes be restored.As the Guardian writes,

Qiu Baoxing, a vice minister with the Ministry of Construction said it was important that China retain its title "kingdom of bicycles," according to a report by the official Xinhua News Agency.

Given the country’s rapidly growing economy, the number of cars in China is expected to increase as much as five fold by 2020, Qiu said. And, as Lester Brown reminds us, if China continues on its course toward United States income levels (and like the U.S. today, can boast three cars for every four people), there will be 1.1 billion vehicles on Chinese roads, compared to the current world fleet of 800 million.

Until china’s cities adapt more green principles of design—and automakers start seeing China as a place to cheaply build and market hybrid cars—the bicycle will continue to be China’s leading symbol of green cool. And hopefully it will even serve--gasp!--as a model for other countries as their urban development keeps rolling along.