Though the bicycle in Beijing has slowly been going the way of the city's historic districts, with cars veering (figuratively and literally) into the city's luxurious bike lanes, the bell has not yet tolled on the two wheeled institution. Though China's no longer the Bicycle Kingdom it once was, there is little sign that the bell will ever toll: For millions of city dwellers, the bicycle is still an essential mode of transit. But for millions of others, the car is becoming an ever tempting option--despite the fact that traffic on the city's Second Ring Road is often slower than a bike.
Aiming to pull them back to the two-wheeled institution (and attract increasing numbers of visitors ahead of the Olympics) is a new city-wide bike rental scheme not unlike the schemes currently enjoying success in cities like Lyon, Stockholm, Barcelona and Paris. But unlike those programs, which have been spearheaded by the government -- and in a vivid symbol of China's strong capitalist leanings -- Beijing's scheme is run privately by a bike-loving entrepreneur. He aims to make it the biggest in the world.Restaurateur Wang Hong, who has been building his bike rental chain quietly for years, expanded it in late summer to include 31 bike stations around the city, mostly near metro stations; by the end of 2008, when the Olympics roll into town, he envisions 200 rental stations and 50,000 bikes.
To Mr. Wang, the scheme is a no-brainer: many Beijingers grew up biking, and in the congested capital, the bike isn't just a practical convenience, but a political statement, he tells the Christian Science Monitor:
We Chinese have a special feeling for bicycles, and cars have brought catastrophic damage to our society and our environment. Every civilized citizen has to be aware … that we have to bring bikes back into our daily lives.
Though it hasn't yet given any active support, the government is taking credit. No wonder: even if can pull cars off the roads for its "green" Olympics, traffic and pollution are weighing heavily on the economy and urban health.
Since its larger roll-out, the scheme has been growing in popularity; at rush hour, many of the rental stations I've seen are empty, their bikes out on the roads. After paying a 400 yuan ($53) credit-card deposit, renting a bike costs 5 yuan ($0.66) an hour, 20 yuan ($2.66) a day, or 100 yuan ($13.33) for a year-long VIP card.
While a bike scheme might seem superfluous in a city already flush with cheap bikes, locals and police alike see the rental scheme as a great way to stem the city's most widespread criminal activity: bike theft.
Still, some locals have complained of the cost of the scheme, especially the 400 yuan deposit that is out of reach for most Beijingers (many of whom lack credit cards anyway), and is more than the price of a sturdy new Forever bike.
Supporters brush aside such criticism, arguing that the scheme is meant to attract visitors who only need a bike for a few days, and might even appeal to those who already have a bike, but can't take it everywhere (folding bikes were recently banned from the subway, due to concerns about overcrowding). The main audience, however, are those who would otherwise take cars.
"We used to be poor and look forward to owning a car as a status symbol, but we have to get over that," Wang tells the Monitor. "The government moves slowly, slowly, but I see things getting brighter. We just have to be patient."
In a way, the bicycle could survive in Beijing because of, not in spite of, the influx of cars. As traffic moves at ever more glacial speeds, the bike looks increasingly attractive.
And while some might fret over safety in a city with 1,000 new cars per day — and where no one wears helmets — riding a bicycle in Beijing is a singularly communal experience, one of Beijing's most delightful institutions, and the best way to get around an increasingly gridlocked city. It's also great for exploring the old neighborhoods that remain, where, for now at least, no cars can go.