Bike or car? Think twice

Ah, the bicycle. Is it going the way of, well, the bicycle?


Published January 14, 2006 by
By Song Mo and Wen Chihua

Ah, the bicycle. Is it going the way of, well, the bicycle? The humble bike, once an emblem of China, ubiquitous, iconic, demanded by brides as part of their dowries – along with a sewing machine, a watch and a radio – sadly seems old-fashioned to many urbanites, write Song Mo and Wen Chihua.

Standing atop a stool clamped to a bicycle rack in her long white wedding gown, the giggling bride clasped her bouquet of white roses as the bridegroom pedaled frantically down Huayuan Road in Beijing's Haidian District to the reception restaurant.

"This is the way we like it. I'll never regret this," Fan Xiaoping told The Beijing News.

"It's really romantic to have our wedding ceremony this way," Fan's husband Jiang Yang, a doctoral student at Peking University, said.

Their prominent picture story appeared to mark something more significant than a wedding announcement: the beginnings of a mini-backlash against the motor vehicle in the Beijing print and online media. Other environmentally-friendly events have been widely publicized, such as the "Driving One Less Day a Month for a Blue Sky in Beijing" activity held on the World Environment Day, June 5.

Recognizing that alongside Mexico City, Beijing shares the dubious distinction of being the world's most polluted capital, more than 200,000 Beijing drivers pledged to use public transport, ride a bike or walk to work on that day.

"It tells us that many people still reserve a special place for the bicycle in their heart, regardless of there being so many cars on the road," says Wang Yan, a civil servant from the Shenzhen Intellectual Property Bureau, who used to work in Beijing for 10 years and go to work by bike every day. "Still, I ride a bike to work almost every day, although I now own a car. I only drive to the suburbs for the weekend."

The Chinese mainland has about 500 million bicycles, according to the Beijing-based China Bicycle Association.

"It's time for us to rethink or rediscover what the bicycle can bring us," says Wang Fenghe, the association president.

Sooner rather than later, "government and people alike, including those car owners, will realize how convenient, healthy and environmentally-friendly riding a bicycle is," says Wang Yan.

"It's often said that Americans were brought up on the rear seats of cars. It's no exaggeration to say we Chinese were brought up on the rear seats of bicycles," says Shen Zhong, an accountant with a soap opera producer in Beijing.

More important, the 52-year-old says, "the bicycle has stored your bitter-sweet memories."

Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, she recalls, "you'd have to obtain a coupon in order to buy a bike, regardless of whether or not you had the money."

Every year, each work unit was provided with a few coupons. Normally, Shen says "one out of 100 employees had a chance to get one coupon."

In the 1970s, a worker's monthly salary could be about 30 yuan (US$3.80). Not until 1973 did Shen get her first bike.

Status symbol

"It was second-hand, but it still cost me 100 yuan. My father asked his friend to fix the rattling for me. For that, my mother even cooked meat for him, which we could only eat at Chinese Spring Festival," says Shen, with a big smile. "My bicycle was like a family member. Life was difficult back then, so that happiness seemed much more precious than today."

Thus the bicycle was once an important status symbol. Shen remembers that when couples planned to marry, one of the prerequisites was the "san zhuan yi xiang," or "three things that go around and one sound" in English – a bicycle, a sewing machine, a wristwatch and a radio.

It was a bicycle that brought Lu Yuling and her husband together.

"We lived far apart," says the retired high school teacher from Chengdu in southwest China's Sichuan Province. "It wasn't so easy to get together. He had a bike. Therefore, almost every evening, he rode all the way across the city to see me.

"Instead of coming into my house, he used to sit on his bike and play a Russian love song on his harmonica. That was our secret signal. On hearing his harmonica, I'd dash out and then we'd ride out to the city park."

Her engagement gift? "Striking and sexy. All my girlfriends were so envious of me."

A fire-engine red bicycle, of course.

"The bicycle was a key part of my romance and my life," says 55-year-old Lu. "I really miss the days when the city was like a huge neighborhood, where car drivers respected cyclists and cyclists respected pedestrians."

The figures from the National Bureau of Statistics revealed that every 100 urban families in China had 162.7 bicycles in 2000. That figure dropped to 120 in 2005.

Urban sprawl appears to be one reason. "People's freedom of movement expands after relocation," says Peking University student Cai Zixuan, 21, whose family bought a car three years ago after moving to the West Fifth Ring Road from downtown Beijing.

"It's so inconvenient to go downtown without a car. Both my parents and I have drivers' licenses so we can make full use of the car. None of us ever rides a bike any more," Cai adds.

It seems that for a certain kind of affluent urban elite, the car has replaced the bicycle as the key expression of affluence, while the bicycle has now become its poor cousin, even a symbol of poverty.

"This way of thinking hinders the development of the bicycle. One's use of a bicycle shouldn't be taken as an indicator of one's financial status," says Wang Fenghe.

Wang feels the media overemphasizes the glamor of the automobile at the expense of the bicycle's obvious advantages: keeping fit, safety, easy to use, zero pollution, energy-saving, cost-effectiveness and size.

"These are the secrets of why the bicycle has lasted ever since its invention," says Wang.

Yang Shan, 36, is a salesman at Beijing Cuiwei Shopping Mall, where he sells 10 bikes a day on the average. The price ranges from 200 to 3,000 yuan.

"Most people buy the cheapest ones, because bicycles often get stolen," Yang says as he assembles the new arrivals.

Apart from the classic Chinese brands like Forever and Phoenix, electric bicycles and portable folding bicycles are becoming increasingly popular.

Although most of his customers are high school students, Yang notes that more drivers are now buying bicycles.

Wang Xiaohui came to try out an electric bicycle.

"I want to buy an electric bicycle to deliver and pick up my son from school. It's less of a headache and quicker," says the 34-year-old mother. "It takes only 10 minutes by electric bicycle, but a half-hour drive in the Beijing traffic."

Other drivers are sticking folding bicycles alongside the spare tire in their car trunk, Wang says.

"They say when there's a traffic jam, they just park the car and get on their bike."