To address continued air pollution and traffic congestion woes, Beijing is harkening back to its days as the "bicycle kingdom" and introducing policies to encourage more cycling. Photo by Dave-Gray.

Originally featured on The City Fix.

To address continued air pollution and traffic congestion woes, Beijing is harkening back to its days as the “bicycle kingdom” and introducing policies to encourage more cycling.

According to The Guardian, 20 years ago, four out of five Beijing residents pedaled around China’s capital in some of the world’s best bike lanes.  However, this number has decreased as private car ownership has gone up. From 1995 to 2005, China’s bike fleet declined by 35 percent while private car ownership more than doubled. Beijing is currently home to four million cars. Last year, China overtook the U.S. in auto sales, with a 46 percent increase in sales over the previous year.  As cities in China have grown, bike lanes have also been eliminated to accommodate more traffic lanes for cars and buses.  By all indications, it’s seemed that Beijing was well on its way to usher in a new king – the automobile.

But is the city of 17 million ready for king car?  Perhaps not, as Beijing’s air quality continues to be poor (last week BeijingAir’s monitoring station reported a few ‘hazardous’ air quality days). Liu Xiaoming, the director of the Municipal Communications Commission, said in a Xinhua article that the government will “revise and eliminate” regulations that discourage bicycle use and impose greater restrictions on car drivers.  Beijing already has limitations to reduce the number of vehicles on the road, continuing the odd-even license plate policy after its successful implementation during the 2008 Olympics. (And read my post about Beijing’s ban on “yellow label” vehicles here.)

The government also plans to restore bicycle lanes that were torn down, as well as to build more parking lots for bicycles at bus and subway stations to encourage additional cycling.  Also an improvement: The city will make more bikes available for rent to defray the cost of owning a bike (a new one can cost as little as $20-$40) and allay fears of bicycle theft, a rampant problem in the city. By 2015, the number of bikes for rent will total 50,000.  Today, only about 100 bicycle rental booths exist in Beijing, and owners are “cautiously optimistic” that the plans to increase rental bikes will be successful in reducing the number of cars on the road.

As a frequent cycler in Beijing, I am thrilled to see bicycles making a comeback and look forward to breathing in the benefits of these new policies.  If successful in producing the “smoother traffic” and “clearer skies” Beijing officials are hoping for, perhaps we’ll see the return of the “bicycle kingdom,” with more cities following suit with cycling as part of a sustainable transportation solution.