“The Municipal Government initiated a low-carbon transport project in 2013, targeting the provision of 50,000 public rental bicycles, or ‘bike share’, to 2,000 service stations covering the entire city by the end of 2015,’ Professor Han says.
“The most recent statistics show that daily usage is at 138,000 rental records,”
Despite this significant investment in getting bicycles back on the streets, there are currently no examples of city-wide bicycle network planning and design in China, let alone Xi’an.
“This runs in contrast to government’s stated desire for green transport and promoting energy saving and emission reduction,” Professor Han says.
“The competition for road spaces between cyclists and car users leads to tensions. It is imperative to address this tension in formulating bicycle transport plans. Urban plans for promoting cycling will not work if done in isolation from planning for cars.”
Professor Han’s team discovered lower middle-income residents, students and young professionals make up the majority of cyclists in Xi’an, though there were some cyclists from high-income backgrounds.
“We were surprised to see a very small number of cyclists who were very well-equipped with top quality bicycles and race gear. That’s a sign of that other section of the population: the affluent,” he says.
“While the uptake of cycling amongst the affluent is in its infancy, we may be starting to see this new and positive way of framing the benefits of cycling.”
Older residents from lower middle-income backgrounds are more likely to use a bicycle, either a privately-owned conventional bicycle or one from the bike share rental scheme, primarily to shop and socialise.
In other words, those who are old enough to remember ‘san zhuan yi xiang’ but do not own a car are more likely to have cycled all their lives.
But in an echo of the past, high-school students are also more likely to own their own bikes and use them to commute. Younger cyclists are the main users of start-ups like Mobike and Ofo bikes which have emerged very recently in Chinese cities.
The infrastructure around encouraging a cycling culture is key.
“Government policies, and laws and regulations still promote motorisation at the expense of bicycle transport,” Professor Han says.
“As to the infrastructure for cycling, the absence of continuous, safe and pleasant bicycle lanes and the lack of bicycle related facilities make the road unwelcome to cyclists.”
“Innovative urban planning is required to redistribute the road resources, along with strong support by new infrastructure and government.”
Bike-share programs alone won’t revolutionise the greening of China’s transport system. The revival of commuter cycling will fail unless cyclists are given back their place on the roads.
Sara Brocklesby is manager, communications and media at The University of Melbourne. This story was originally published in Pursuit, by the University of Melbourne.