As I mentioned last week, I want to share a few general observations about bicycle use in China. Some of you may remember a post from September of 2008 in which I said that there seemed to be less bikes overall on the roads (I realize I should have said fewer, but cut me some slack…I was still jetlagged). In that post, I pointed out that many of the bicycles that I had seen on previous trips had been replaced with mopeds, motorized scooters, motorcycles, and even electric bikes. I was back in China a couple more times in 2009, and on each trip that same trend toward motorized transport (and away from the traditional Flying Pigeon bikes and pedal powered cargo trikes) seemed to be continuing.
The illustration seen above, from a 2009 China Daily article about the income gap in China, clearly illustrates the idea that many people in the country view the bicycle as a symbol of poverty. Those with the means to purchase a moped or scooter generally think of those vehicles as obvious upgrades from purely pedal powered transport. I don’t want to oversimplify the issue by stating that bicycle use is declining in the country strictly because of an image problem though. As car ownership in China continues to increase at an incredible rate, and the streets become more and more chaotic, some people want to “upgrade” to a faster vehicle for safety reasons (or at least perceived safety reasons). While I acknowledge that are many factors driving the decline in bike use, I do believe that the perception of the bicycle as “poor mans” transport plays a big role in the average Chinese worker’s aspiration to own a motorized vehicle of some sort.
On my first day in Southern China a couple weeks ago though, I was surprised to notice what seemed like a greater percentage of bicycles on the roads (compared to late 2008 and 2009). Throughout industrial areas like Dongguan, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou, it seemed like I was seeing a slight reversal of the trend I had noticed before. Granted this was no measured observation, but I was pretty convinced after a couple of days that I really was seeing a greater number of bicycles and fewer mopeds, scooters, etc, than I had on the previous three trips. The economy, I assumed, was driving some people, especially factory workers, back to pedal powered transport.
For the second week of my trip though, I flew north from the Pearl River Delta area. In the areas around Shanghai, things seemed to be different. All of the sudden, it seemed like I was seeing a continuation of the trend I mentioned in that 2008 post. As you can see in this picture, scooters and motorbikes far outnumbered bicycles in the bike lanes of Shanghai. Even outside the city in the more industrial areas to the west, the ratio of bicycles to motorbikes seemed to be noticeably lower than what I had just seen down south.
So what explains the differences in the two parts of the country that I observed? I don’t know… perhaps the manufacturing based economy down south has just been harder by the global financial crisis than a big city like Shanghai, which has a more diverse job base. That theory makes some sense, but it still doesn’t explain my similar observations in smaller nearby areas like Wuxi or Changzhou. It also doesn’t seem to be supported by two recent articles that I noticed lately, one about a shift back to bicycle use in Beijing, and another about a new bike rental system in Shanghai. Like I said before…my observations were just based on a few days in different locations, so they can’t be considered comprehensive. So I guess as much as I am sharing my observations in this post, I am also throwing out questions. I would love to hear from any of you who live in China or who visit the country more often than I do. Are you seeing the same patterns of bicycle use that I noticed? Is there a real increase in bicycle use after a few years of decline?
Regardless of any regional transportational cycling trends (real or perceived), I think it is definitely true that many young people in the country view bikes as symbols of the past. They consider it progress when they can “upgrade” to a motorcycle or even a car. From a design standpoint, how can manufacturers create transportation oriented bicycles that are more appealing to, not just the less affluent people in China who have no other choice, but to the growing middle class? That is a pretty general question, but I think it is one that will need to be addressed as China’s economy continues to grow. As the rate of car ownership continues to increase exponentially, and gridlocked traffic becomes more and more frustrating, bicycles (including electric ones) are more likely to again become an attractive alternative for those who have the means to choose from a variety of transportation options. I certainly don’t have all the answers (as you can probably tell from this rambling post), but I would love to hear some of your opinions about bicycle design for the Chinese market.