Who really reigns in ‘The Kingdom of Bicycles’?

By Dr Lucy Mahoney, Network Manager, Walking and Cycling

China is famed for its cycling. From the age-old iconic images of cyclists roaring through historic cityscapes to the modern-day infiltration of dockless bike share schemes, cycling really is ubiquitous in China.

The rise of the car

After nearly a century of cycling growth, there was a decline in cycling mode share in the ‘Kingdom of Bicycles’ from 1995, alongside a colossal rise in car ownership. Cycling in Beijing for example, accounted for 38% of total mode share in 2000, but in 2009 had decreased to 18%. A major contributing factor were policies implemented across China, specifically to reduce bicycle mode share and infrastructure, which nudged cyclists out and, in their place, advanced auto-centric ambitions. 

The perceived high status of car ownership has resulted in car dominance across the globe. Just as in many nations, in China, in the late 90s and early 2000s, cars were seen to signal economic development and were prioritised politically. 

Today, the negative impact of high levels of private car ownership are witnessed globally, and the wider consequences of climate change are hitting urban and rural areas hard. 

A cycling revival

Many cities across China however are now enjoying a major cycling revival. Citizens are reclaiming the streets and getting back on their bikes. This reawakening has generated record-breaking infrastructure construction and cycling action guided by ambitious cycling targets. In 2008, Hangzhou for example was the first city in China to experiment with public bike share, proudly boasting the title of the world’s largest bike share scheme. In 2017 the south eastern city of Xiamen opened the world’s longest elevated cycle lane; a 7.6km continuous, separated ‘skyway’ that can handle 2,023 bikes at a time.  

It is clear that China means business. 

C40 Cycling Study Tour 

On top of the speed and scale of China’s cycling ambition, the pride with which Chinese cities are delivering cycling action is striking. In June 2019, a delegation from seven C40 cities as well as two experts from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy and the Natural Resources Defence Council visited Hangzhou and Nanjing. The group witnessed first-hand the Chinese cities’ awe-inspiring achievements in cycling. Both Hangzhou and Nanjing are rolling out kilometre after kilometre of separated cycle lanes at an incredible pace, expanding their public bike share schemes (with enhanced fleet management and maintenance systems in place) while wrestling with private dockless operators. The knowledges and experiences shared will help these seven C40 cities improve their own active travel strategies and policies at home.

Cycling challenges 

Of course, we have to acknowledge that China’s cycling revival comes with complex challenges. You may have seen the images of ‘China’s bike graveyards’ with mountains of abandoned dockless cycles affecting cities across China from Shanghai to Wuhan to Xiamen. Grappling with such challenges affected China’s cycling reputation but lessons have been learned around the consequences of inadequately controlled and poorly planned operations. China can now confidently lead the discourse around best practice and are graciously sharing experiences with other global cities.

Road space reallocation

Chinese cities are planning the next phase of cycling infrastructure growth and cycle share expansion. Reducing urban sprawl and a reallocation of road space is however the key to unlocking smart growth and increasing further cycling uptake. There are excellent examples of multimodal integration across many Chinese cities, offering high quality access to public transit stations and stops. As always, more needs to be done and now is the time to properly reprioritise cycling, walking and public transport. 

As cities across the globe aim to improve air quality and reduce carbon emissions, reallocating space to more sustainable and efficient modes is critical. This will not only help tackle car dominance and improve reliability but will also support a growing urban population and improve quality of life. Reallocation also provides more space for public transport and essential (and clean!) freight and servicing journeys. The positives are manifold, including improved public health outcomes, clean air and pleasant streetscapes as well as reduced emissions, less road danger and improved equity for all. 

Cycling investment is key

As Chinese cities race ahead on cycling investment, introducing tougher land use and transport planning policies can make cycling, walking and public transport the easiest, healthiest and most convenient options in Chinese cities. Such investment is key to China’s continued social and economic success; a return to the Kingdom of Bicycles is coming.