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My latest observations from China

Miscellaneous 16 122

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.

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  1. Alan February 19, 2010 at 8:44 pm -  Reply

    The ban on small sized engined cars, vans and motorbikes in centres of many cities in Guangdong province as an act to minimize traffic jam and pollution might contribute to the rebound of bicycles in those places as you saw. It seems that Shanghai and Beijing have not introduce this ban…

  2. Sebastian February 20, 2010 at 12:32 am -  Reply

    The stylish looks and image of Fixed Gear and Single Speed bicycles might get people interested in green and healthy solutions to get through traffic fast. Also in China.

    At the moment I am in Bangkok where these bikes are rapidly growing in popularity. I am on my way on one from Singapore to Shanghai and visited a meeting of Bangkok Fixed Gear yesterday. I will also do so in Shanghai.

    • James Simpson January 20, 2012 at 6:19 pm -  Reply

      Please contact me as I am a developer of Human Powered Alternative Vehicles in the US, as well as creating a portfolio of custom designed Work Bikes, targeting specific needs in the Industry.

      I was wondering if you would be able to link me with any interested parties in development in Asia.

  3. Ron February 20, 2010 at 2:18 am -  Reply

    I wonder why this is so surprising. The perception of bicycles as "poor" man's transport exist even in countries like India and that's mainly due to the things you suggest. Middle class families want a quicker, safer way to commute to work or drop the kids to school or take the family out for a vacation and bikes aren't going to do that for them. Obviously, there's a huge boost to self-esteem and respect through ownership of a car in society and so riding a bicycle is seen taking a step backward instead of heading in the direction of progress, or what the common majority see as progress. But that's not to say there aren't groups of people cultivating the need to exercise through riding bikes in certain areas. Still a majority of them feel like they are taking a risk through bike riding. When you don't feel safe on a bike, you're not going to ride it.

  4. kate February 20, 2010 at 2:55 am -  Reply

    Good observation you have there. Have you read of the saying that God created the world and everything else comes from China. Yeah mostly of the products coming from China are emitations but there still some original ones.

  5. jamesmallon February 20, 2010 at 11:37 am -  Reply

    Ha. The perception of bikes, foot and transit, as a poor man's mode of travel exists everywhere outside of the core of a dozen cities in the U.S. and Canada, too. So too the 'safety' arms race: my safety at the expense of society, dammit!

  6. Harry February 20, 2010 at 11:49 am -  Reply

    Was In Gounagzhou and Beijing a couple of weeks ago. First time in China. Heard that some cities have banner internal combustion scooters. So there has been an increase in the use of e-bikes and possibly bikes as well.

    • James Simpson January 20, 2012 at 6:22 pm -  Reply

      Could you possibly get me some contact links in Asia? I design and manufacture Work Bikes in the US and am looking for interested parties in development.

  7. Anonymous February 20, 2010 at 10:35 pm -  Reply

    Only a wealthy middle-class 'designer' can type the phrase –

    I do believe that the perception of the bicycle as “poor mans” transport plays a big role in the average Chinese worker’s aspiration…

    -without a hint of irony. They don't 'percieve' themselves as being poor, they ARE poor. Look around you, who are the people in the West taking up alternative cycling lifestyles? The ones that CAN ALREADY afford cars.

    When your basic needs are barely being met and you're working 60 hours a week for 30c an hour, you're hardly thinking to yourself "Gee, how can I change my image".

  8. Sergio February 21, 2010 at 4:10 am -  Reply

    I wonder why this is so surprising. The perception of bicycles as "poor" man's transport exist even in countries like Spain(Europe)…

  9. James T. February 21, 2010 at 7:52 am -  Reply

    Thanks for the comments so far everyone.

    Ron and Sergio, I don't think it is surprising at all that bike use is declining worldwide. It is something I don't like to see, but it is certainly not unexpected. The only thing that surprised me a bit was that bicycle use seemed to be back on the upswing.

    Anon, 10:35, You have to be kidding! I never even implied that the poverty in China or any other parts of the world is not a very real problem. I was simply saying that the bicycle, more than any other object, has come to be viewed as a symbol of that poverty, especially among those who can afford to abandon it. The gap between rich and poor has widened dramatically in the last decade, so those (real not perceived) poor Chinese workers have to contend with cars on the roads that were not there a short while ago. Many of the new drivers treat them like their lives do not matter, so it really is increasingly dangerous for them to carry out their daily tasks. Given that situation, I understand exactly why they want to ditch their bikes in favor of something they think and hope will make their lives a little better. I just think there will be a point when the growing wealthy population in China realizes that car culture comes with its own set of problems. At the current rate of automobile consumption, that will probably be sooner rather than later.

  10. Rob February 21, 2010 at 8:01 am -  Reply

    I thought the ban on motor scooters in Guang dong and Shenzhen was partly to do with street crime. Purse snatchers and muggers were using them to rob women as they went to work. This ban probably caused the increase in bicycle use.

  11. jamesmallon February 21, 2010 at 12:06 pm -  Reply

    "I just think there will be a point when the growing wealthy population in China realizes that car culture comes with its own set of problems."

    Except that it hasn't happened in N. America yet, has it? The 'set of problems' that come with car culture are externalities that are borne more by the poor, so what's the incentive for the wealthy? Common humanity? The 20th century makes it hard to believe there's much of that anywhere.

  12. Jannis Gerlinger February 22, 2010 at 5:38 am -  Reply

    Sounds great!


  13. product design February 23, 2010 at 3:52 am -  Reply

    china bicycle manufacture is very interesting, they all design the same things because they want to earn fast money and copy each other.

  14. Tim September 26, 2010 at 2:44 am -  Reply

    During a trip to asia I heard a chinese bike owner saying that American brand bikes have a class status associated with them. As only the wealthy in china can afford the imported Brands. You can see the bike culture clearly in this film:

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