November 7, 2016 7:00 pm JST

From poor man's tool to cool -- China's cycling renaissance

SHUHEI YAMADA, Head of Nikkei's China Headquarters

Members of Peking University's cycling club prepare to set off for the Great Wall.

BEIJING -- For decades, the bicycle was how most students, commuters and other Chinese got from point A to point B. But when the country's economy took off, people began ditching their steeds for cars. Along the way, what was once an essential tool for the masses began to be seen as the poor man's transport.

But the pendulum is swinging back. Thanks to growing awareness about health and the environment, bicycles are winning a new and growing following in China as a clean and fun way to get around.

Among this group is Zhao Yanzhe, a 20-year-old seismology student and member of the cycling club at Peking University.

"The climbs on the route are sometimes as long as 10km," Zhao told a group of some 60 students who had gathered on the campus for a big club ride. "Try to help the novices when you can."

Their destination was Mutianyu, a spot along the Great Wall some five or six hours from the school by bike. "Cycling in the mountains is a way to challenge myself," said Zhao as he set off on his mountain bike with his club mates.

In decades past, roads swarming with thousands of bikes were a common sight in China. But around the year 2000, the bikes began giving way to more and more cars. "I never really experienced [the bike-clogged streets]," Zhou said. "That was my parents' generation."

For years now, China has churned out about 70% of the world's bicycles, making some 80 million units a year. Exports have surged from nearly zero in the 1980s to more than 50 million bikes today. As exports have risen, domestic sales have shrunk.

"As people became wealthier, they began shifting to cars -- partly to show off their wealth," said Ma Zhongchao, president of the China Bicycle Association. According to the organization, bikes accounted for 68% of all transportation in China in the 1980s. By 2014, the number had plunged to 12%.

Amid the swelling interest in cars, bikes started to be viewed as the realm of the elderly and the poor. 

But the tide began turning around the time of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Suddenly, healthy lifestyles were in vogue, and it did not hurt that the government was pushing hard to combat air pollution before the world turned its attention to China.

There's an app for that

Today, it is estimated that more than 20 million Chinese ride bikes for fun, and the figure continues to increase by over 50% a year. That boom is giving rise to a host of new services.

"It's handy to be able to drop off my bike anywhere," said Ou Hao, who rents a bike several times a week to commute to his information technology job in Beijing some 2km from the nearest train station.

Ou uses a bicycle-sharing app launched in April by a startup called Mobike. The app helps users locate available bikes in the city with their smartphones. By scanning a QR code on the bike with their phones, users can make payments, as well as open or close the lock.

The service charges 1 yuan (15 cents) per 30 minutes. To enhance the convenience for users, the bikes can be dropped off anywhere instead of at a designated location.

Tens of thousands of Mobike bicycles are on the streets of Beijing and Shanghai. And this autumn, the service expanded into Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

"I hope our service helps solve some of China's urban problems, such as car emissions and traffic congestion," said Mobike CEO Davis Wang.

The government welcomes the bicycle revival, mainly for its potential to reduce the country's notoriously bad air pollution, particularly in Beijing. To keep the momentum going, the government has laid out a plan to develop lanes exclusively for bicycles.

"We hope that in addition to becoming a superpower, China becomes home to many bicycle lovers," said Ma of the China Bicycle Association.

The country's neighbors also have reason to root for a cycling renaissance in China, as it could mean cleaner skies for them, too.

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