Updated 26.10.2023

02 November 2007

Bull in a China Shop - The Fall of Chinese Bike Culture

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Kasghar Chicken Express 1992, originally uploaded by [Zakkaliciousness].

I spent a few months in China in 1990 and again in 1992 and one of the moments of clarity I remember most was riding about on a black Chinese standard bike and entering a roundabout in central Beijing.

I had ridden all about the country on the bike but nothing could have prepared me for that roundabout. First of all it was the size of a small African nation, with six roads using it as a hub.

Secondly, I entered a fantastic school of cycling fish. Literally hundreds of cyclists. I could see no rhyme or reason for their movement. It was a fluent, poetic swirling mass of cyclism. There were no hand signals and nary an over the shoulder glance when one of the hundreds exited the roundabout. It was timed to perfection.

No collisions, no talking, no sound at all. The occasional eye contact perhaps.

And there was I. Caught in an operatic maelstrom. I had no idea how to get out of the mass to exit down my street. I ended up circling four times, gradually edging my way to the kerb and making a break for it.

Thrilling, exhilirating.

Sadly, it's a scene out of the past. The bike has fallen out of favour with the nouveau riche. They are turning to the car in shocking numbers. I'm all for China gaining in prosperity and becoming a superpower. No problem. But they're ditching something amazing in the process.

Car ownership increased by 20% last year alone, reaching 22 million according to the National Bureau of Statistics. Motorways and ring roads are being built at an alarming rate.

Just ten years ago there were 500 million cyclists in China. The bike was emperor of the roads. It was the only way to go and the fastest way to get there.

But whereas two thirds of families traveled by bike in the 90's, it is only 20% today. Bike ownership in cities has plummeted by 25% in the past five years.

That still gives you 7 million bikes in the capital, but these rates are alarming and not a little sad.

I miss that roundabout in 1990 dreadfully.

Our only consolation here at Copenhagenize.com is that Danes and Dutch are inspiring other Europeans to embrace the bike. Berlin, Paris, London, among many others. All moving for a greater bike culture.