Bicycle Diaries: Olympic traffic taming

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Olympic traffic taming

4 wheels bad, 2 wheels good
as Beijing aims for smog-free games

In the London Times, 27 August 2007, Jane Macartney writes:
Wang Yong wants to see bicycles massed on the streets of Beijing but many in the Chinese capital think that his ideas are ahead of his time. The city fabled as the “Kingdom of the Bicycle” has fallen out of love with two-wheeled travel and is infatuated with the car, not least as a status symbol. Intersections are gridlocked by hooting cars in acrid and choking air.

Beijing is a city struggling against smog and Mr Wang, the president of Beijing Bicycle Rental Services, is hoping that his venture to introduce bicycle rental will gather speed. Only days ago he won the support of the Government, which is worried that a pall of pollution could cast a shadow over the Olympic Games next August.

He has won the sponsorship of the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau as well as the police in a city where bicycle theft is a matter of course. Mr Wang set up his company two years ago, but the going has not been easy. He said: “It has been much more difficult than I expected. In Paris it’s easy because the service is promoted by the Government. In Beijing, it’s an enterprise that I am trying to set up to protect the environment - but I don’t want to lose money.”

So far he has established 31 rental points across the city with nearly 5,000 bicycles available. The Government has said that it hopes that by the time of the Olympics the capital will boast as many as 200 rental stations and 50,000 bicycles.

But why hire a bicycle in a city of 9 million bicycles and 17 million inhabitants? Mr Wang believes that his service relieves residents of the expenditure of buying a bike, the hassle of parking it and the worries over theft. He acknowledges, however, that as China has entered the car age, “some people think my idea is ahead of its time. The Chinese aren’t bored with driving and it’s impossible to lure them back to the bicycle right now.”

Mr Wang and environmental officials are hoping that more Beijingers will be encouraged to give up their cars as they realise the dangers. He said: “One-third of all breathable dirt comes from car exhausts so if there were more cyclists this could make a difference to our air."

To buy a bicycle in Beijing can cost as little as 200 yuan (£13). To take part in Mr Wang’s scheme, residents must pay a 400 yuan deposit and rent of 100 yuan a year. He said: “If you can’t afford that then you aren’t my target customer. It’s like a street stall and a five-star hotel: they each have their own customers.” But he admits that city officials are reluctant to approve sites to park bicycles. “If they use the land for car parks they can make a lot more money.”

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