All back-pedal as cars rule where before the bicycle was king
Every day the bicycle-riders of Beijing swirl and tack and glide along the streets, individually or in flotillas, on machines with names like Phoenix, Pegasus, Dark Horse, Flying Eagle, Flying Pigeon and Golden Lion.
The estimated nine million Beijing bicycles are the red corpuscle of this great communist metropolis of 13 million people. With its flat surfaces and dry climate, no world city is better suited to bicycles. Day and night they move sedately along special mini-avenues parallel to the main boulevards, or on traffic lanes blocked off by dividers on busy thoroughfares they just weave in and out of traffic where the roads are narrow. No city street is closed to them.
Except, that is, a street called Xisi Dong Dajie, or "East-of-Xisi-District Street". This is an ancient tree-lined artery only a few hundred metres long with a modern cinema, and some shops selling shoes, mobile telephones and stuffed toys.
A plaque states that until 1965, when many pre-communist street names were changed, it was called Horse Market Street, a designation dating back to the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). It connects two long and narrow city-centre streets lined with stores which are invariably choked with cars, minivans, trolley buses and bicycles.
When a metal traffic sign showing a bicycle silhouette with a line through it was erected at each end of East Xisi Street on October 1st, announcing that henceforth it was closed to cycle traffic, it sent a shock wave through the city.
No such sign had been seen before in Beijing. In fact it is so unthinkable not to be able to cycle freely anywhere in the Chinese capital that to enforce the prohibition, which is effective from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m, special wardens have taken up position at each end of Xisi Dong Dajie, working in shifts for 13 hours every day.
They shout orders through megaphones at cyclists who try to turn into the street. Behind each warden another traffic official with ID badge and red armband makes those who disobey get off and wheel their bicycle along the narrow pavement. Two or three policemen stand by to make absolutely sure the law is obeyed.
The Bejing traffic department said 6,000 bicycles traversed the street at peak periods, making it difficult for cars and trolley buses to move freely. Every conceivable kind of Beijing bicycle-user came along East Xisi Street: commuters on regular three-speed bicycles, petite shop assistants steering with high, forked handlebars, businessmen on Japanese models with mobile phones to their ears, and delivery men on rigid work bicycles with long loose chains, hauling carts piled high with sofas and wardrobes.
Vendors came by on solid bicycle tyres transporting coal briquettes or giant bales of cloth. Hawkers with trays of cigarettes or potted plants jostled for position with peasants in conical hats on old bedstead bicycles laden with sacks of vegetables or live chickens in cages.
Occasional pedi-cab owners would cycle through calling out to potential customers. There were even occasional sightings of foreign residents like myself (riding a modest Phoenix), usually pedalling harder than the Beijingers, intent more on keeping fit than getting there.
The banning of bicycles from the street is a major victory for the car. It has long been forecast by students of urban growth in China that the authorities would start edging out bicycles in favour of motorised transport, to make Beijing a more modern city. In fact, I have noticed that many dividers which blocked off cycle lanes disappeared in recent months, forcing cyclists to compete on the open road with four-wheeled traffic.
The demand for vehicle space is overwhelming in a city which had hardly any cars 20 years ago but now has 1.3 million motor vehicles and one of the globe's most polluted atmospheres. Roads still make up only 10 per cent of Beijing's surface area compared to 20 per cent in most European cities, and traffic jams are endemic. Construction goes on round the clock, and old neighbourhoods are being razed to make way for new highways.
Capital cities around the world, from Dublin and Copenhagen to Lima and Tokyo, are trying to promote environment-friendly bicycle use, and the Worldwatch Institute predicts that bicycles will become an integral part of the world's urban transport in the 21st century. But for now, on this issue, Beijing appears to be back-pedalling.