When I first visited Beijing in 1994 it was minus 20C. The sky was an incredible azure colour, the wind blasted in from the Gobi Desert and the streets were filled with bicycles. I had never seen so many bicycles or so many people on them. At traffic lights hundreds of people would wait for the light change and the very few cars just had to try to negotiate their way through the melee.
17 years later and the balance has shifted. The sky is grey, full of exhaust pollution from millions of cars. There are still cyclists but increasingly they are seen as an unfortunate underclass that cannot or will not afford the main symbol of the new capitalism.
This blog started with a question to my Chinese born wife, Junying. I asked her to name the most famous brand of Chinese bicycle. She said “Flying Pigeon”. One Google later (Flying_Pigeon) and I found that a factory in Tianjin had produced 100s of Millions of bicycles over the past 60 years and that the bicycle was one of the “four rounds” that a man had to have when he got married. The other three were a radio (presumably) with a round dial, a wristwatch and lastly a sewing machine.
At one time a Flying Pigeon would cost as much as 3 months total pay for a manual worker in China. So it was probably the most expensive of the four rounds, and prized as such, with a very long waiting list. To get one quickly you had to have Communist Party connections. They weighed about 25kg or more than 55lbs. This was fine in Beijing because it was so flat. As in Europe in the early 1900s the bike offered enormous freedoms for the millions who bought one.
In the 1990s the Beijing authorities decided that the bicycle was backward, and that the bikes were getting in the way of progress in the shape of cars and buses. Driven by the need to have sustained economic growth through manufacturing, the car’s needs became paramount. A fifth, sixth and Dantean seventh ring road were added as Beijing middle classes progressed to commuting instead of living near to work.
Today, Beijing traffic is grinding to a halt, with the average commuter spending four hours each working day getting to and from the office.
Back in the post-industrial West, the clock is running backwards. In Copenhagen, more than 40% of journeys are made by bicycle. Western cities like Portland in Oregon and even hilly San Francisco are investing in special networks for cyclist. London mayor Boris Johnson is investing massively in cycling infrastructure. Even in Mo-Town Birmingham, UK a tiny minority are trying to buck the trend of the car and cycle to work.
As the great cities of the East are in the full flow of car addiction, Western cities are in rehab with a resurrection of the dying art of travelling by bicycle. This causes arguments with cars, vans and lorries as the bicycles increase in number and try to use the same narrow streets.
As someone who is involved in the “battle” I find that the majority go with the flow, and the two methods of transport can co-exist in a shared space; but there are some on either side who really hate cars or cyclists. What are your experiences – either as a driver or cyclist?