If you asked someone in the past ten years or so what they thought of when they heard “China”, they most likely said two things: bicycles and/or the ubiquitous “Made in China” sticker adhered to nearly everything. Today you say China and people think super-sized cities, smog and economic takeover. Has the bicycle become a thing of the past for the People’s Republic, just a relic leftover for the poor? I think not. But in a nation so quickly trying to emulate Western lifestyle, city by city, town by town the role and presence of the bicycle is changing. And though maybe the hoards have diminished some, the bicycle remains a steadfast, essential part of life for many, its role just as multifaceted as the cultural transitions themselves.
First, a brief history of bikes in China: The first reporting of a bicycle in the Middle Kingdom (as it is commonly referred) was by a Chinese diplomat, who during a trip to Europe in 1866 was curiously taken by “a vehicle with only two wheels, which is held together by a pipe…” where people “…sit above this pipe and push forward with movements of their feet” (Binchun, Chengcha Biji, 1866/68). At first a strange novelty used only by expatriates, it took some time for the “pipe on wheels” to catch on in China. The wealthy Chinese preferred a human labor escort of course. But with all of those students, businessmen, and journalists living abroad it was inevitable that they would bring
In the shining, new age of the automobile, the enduring bicycle quickly lost ground. The upper class and their disposable income looked to the West for the greatest, prized display of wealth and the car and motorcycle soon usurped the title spot. The car, representing wealth and forward progress, did its best to drive out the lowly pedal-powered plaything, now synonymous with poor, archaic backwardness. Some depressing statistics from the Earth Policy Institute stated, “from 1995 to 2005, China’s bike fleet declined by 35 percent, from 670 million to 435 million, while private car ownership more than doubled, from 4.2 million to 8.9 million.” In a country so densely populated, the catastrophic effects of the car couldn’t be ignored. How could one ignore a nine-day traffic jam outside of Beijing in 2013, or the current smog problems?
Even with the newfound love of the automobile, the bikes never disappeared. In China everything gets reused and repurposed. The ridership diminished some, but bikes are beginning to regain their place.
One avenue for this cycle revitalization lies in the bike share programs that are erupting around the country. China has the biggest bike sharing fleet in the world with approximately 358,000 public bicycles available in 79 different networks (EPI, 2013). All are very inexpensive, and some even free to use. In another early 2013 study of the top 25 bike share programs worldwide, China took all but six spots, with Wuhan taking first place with 90,000 public bikes. Things are changing. And the country surely has the infrastructure to build bikes for the people of their country. True to its production prowess, China has consistently built the most bicycles worldwide for the past 20 plus years: 87 million units in 2007 alone (including Taiwan). Italy, with a mere 2.5 million units, was next in line. Electric bicycles are also making a wave and in 2008 there were close to 100 million on the road in China. The Middle Kingdom could become the “Kingdom of Bicycles” once again.