Beijing looks to revitalise bicycle culture

Pedalling around Beijing is a daily struggle for retiree Dai Haiping, with more than four million cars clogging the streets of the Chinese capital, but she remains faithful to her two-wheeler.

Dai is a member of Friends of Nature, a non-governmental organisation which advocates clean public transport, especially over short distances. For Dai, pedal power is the perfect solution for Beijing, but drivers do not agree.

"There are not enough bike lanes. Cars are always in the way when you're trying to cycle and it's really dangerous," says the 59-year-old, who once worked as an agronomist.

In the 1980s, as China launched its pivotal economic reforms, eight out of every 10 Beijingers used bicycles as their primary mode of transport.

Today, that rate has dropped to less than two out of 10.

Once commonplace images of thousands of cyclists ringing their bells at Beijing intersections have been replaced by mammoth traffic jams and blaring horns, as the city's increasingly affluent middle classes embrace the auto.

With road congestion and air pollution ever worsening, local officials are trying to revitalise Beijing's once-thriving bicycle culture by offering a share-hire scheme, similar to those seen in Europe.

"This bike-hire system is aimed at resolving the problem of getting around the city for people needing to travel short distances," says Guo Yun, vice head of the citizens' service centre in Chaoyang district.

Dai and other members of her group support the initiative.

She is constantly trying to carve out a bit of space for her trusty bike in Beijing - a perfect city for cyclists because it's flat, even if searing summer temperatures and icy winters can make riding a bit trying at times.

"I like riding my bike. I don't like taking public transport - it's just too crowded," says Dai, who once used her bicycle for work visits to the countryside.

Her group is mapping the city's bike lanes to see which are most rider-friendly. It regularly organises outings to gauge cyclist opinions.

"To boost economic growth, people need to buy cars, but to protect the environment, the number of cars allowed in central Beijing has to be limited," Dai says.

Unlike other major cities such as Shanghai, Beijing refused to consider such a move until a few years ago.

Just ahead of the 2008 Olympic Games, it took a series of measures to reduce traffic and improve air quality, including the banning of each car from the roads for one day a week. Those restrictions remain in place.

Then in early January, the city adopted the "Green Movement" plan, with the goal of putting nearly a quarter of the city's 17-million-strong population on bicycles by 2015, against 19.7 percent currently.

The bike-hire scheme, launched in early March, is part of that plan. Users apply for a swipe card, which they can use to access 100 bicycles at neighbourhood kiosks near subway stations and key residential buildings.

The first 20 hours of use are free. After that, a fee of 200 yuan must be paid to get another card.

By 2015, authorities say they hope to have about 1,000 kiosks offering 50,000 bikes for rent.

At the exit to the Dongsi underground rail station in the heart of the capital, where hire-bikes are on offer, student Huang Li says she likes the idea.

"It's very green, but it also allows people to get some exercise. It's really good that everyone is working together to protect the environment," Huang says.

The battle of the bikes is however far from won. Previous bicycle-hire schemes failed, and in a fast-growing China, cars are more than a means of transport - they are a status symbol and a sign of economic success.