Shanghai's cycling culture hangs in the balance; but it's not just because of the motor car.


I was fortunate enough to visit Shanghai recently.  It's an energetic and complex mega-city (24 million residents, and counting) where modernity is meeting the old ways of Chinese living.  I'd heard before how this former city of bicycles had become enthralled to the motor car, but I hadn't expected the very fabric of the city itself to contribute to the decline in cycle culture.



Cycling rates have decreased in Shanghai in recent years, and the same problem can be seen all over China.  In decades past China was called the "Kingdom of the Bicycle" where massive populations were moved around by massive amounts of bikes.  As recently as 1998 some 63% of all journeys in the city of Jinan were made by bicycle.  By 2011 that figure had fallen to 10%.  In Shanghai, cycling rates fell by 60% over the same period.  These sobering figures are from the World Bank, who are rarely breathless about this sort of thing.

I flew to Shanghai on a Chinese airline.  Every commercial on the entertainment package - without exception - was for a private car.  It was the same in the in-flight magazine.  Cars that gave you feelings of freedom, cars that helped you keep your family safe, cars that would help you reconnect with your kids after a busy day at the office, cars that would help you find (and keep) a girlfriend.  I was fully prepared to witness the reality of the idea that a rise in private car ownership had directly contributed to the decline in cycling rates.  What I discovered was something rather different.


On the streets of Shanghai, signs of an impressive-by-UK-standards cycling rate can still be seen everywhere.  There are manned bike parks outside shopping malls, deliveries of goods of every shape and size being made by bicycle, labourers plying for work from one construction site to another using bikes to get around.  Kids being collected by grandparents from school by bike, and even bottles of gas being delivered on bicycles through the tightly packed streets of the Shikumen Longtang residences; a style of back-to-back row housing famous in Shanghai.  But all the cyclists I saw were just a small percent compared to what you would have found just a few years ago.  Where have all the cyclists gone?



To say that Chinese cities are changing at breakneck speed almost seems like an understatement.  We all know the stories of entire towns and districts being built in the time it would take for us to raise a few houses.  Change builds quickly, and sweeps aside everything in its path.  Just twenty years ago Shanghai did not have a single metro line. Now it has 14, carrying roughly 6 million passengers per day.  Passengers are whisked to the airport at 430kph on a new maglev train.  The 632 metre high Shanghai Tower is the tallest building in Asia - the second tallest in the world - and popped up in just 5 years. The city has an active car ownership restraint programme, auctioning number plates to deliberately inflate their value, but this did not stop the number of cars owned in the city increasing by an additional million in just 5 years between 2005 and 2010 to 3.1 million.  In 2010, when asked if she'd like to go on a romantic bike ride, dating show contestant Ma Nuo caused an uproar responding, "I'd rather cry in the back of a BMW than smile on a bicycle." (Source: The Atlantic)



All across Shanghai densely packed Longtang housing is being cleared to make way for wider roads, shopping malls and high rise housing, each new tower fenced off from the next. In these new developments the subjective experience for pedestrians and cyclists is greatly diminished with bike lanes ripped out and new roads built without any sidewalk.  To be clear, much of the old housing is cramped, dark and with only very basic sanitation, with many people living together in conditions we would consider positively Victorian.  But on the streets there is a palpable sense of social cohesion with people sitting out the front of their homes, talking to neighbours, trading with passers by and only ever a short bicycle ride away from commerce, education or parks.  Door-to-door traders ply their wares, children play in the lanes, old people gather around tables for tea or to enjoy card games, and all in a predominantly car free environment.

Traditional Longtang housing is being demolished all across the city to be replaced with high rise residential towers.

As these neighbourhoods are cleared and replaced with high rise residential towers (at great profit for the people to who the formerly unowned land has been assigned), the residents who move in to the new units gain light, air, electricity and private bathrooms.  But down on the ground they loose a richly patterned street life that was sustained by the shape of the city and the types of building in it, which in turn supported high cycling rates.   Instead, people travel the greater distances presented by their new homes on the burgeoning transit system, or in cars.  As more people travel in this way, so there are fewer cyclists, and space for cyclists, and so conditions deteriorate further and the decline continues.

New developments create poor amenity for both walkers and cyclists.

The idea that massive increases in private car ownership rates have led to the demise of the bicycle in China is too readily accepted by Western commentators.  We know, from the experience of successful cycling countries such as the Netherlands where there are both high cycle and car ownership rates, that the two can live together simultaneously.  The decline of the bicycle in China is more complex than at first it seems.  The World Bank says; "Conditions for both pedestrians and cyclists have been deteriorating across Chinese cities in the last few years. This is due to a combination of factors, including the lack of policies prioritising these users, cities sacrificing space for non-motorised traffic to be used for motorised traffic, the spatial growth of cities resulting in longer trips, and specific difficulties related to the big arterial roads of a typical Chinese city."

"You don't know what you've got till it's gone"

In short, as Shanghai strives to update itself, it risks destroying its cycling culture.  Not because some people can now afford a car or two, but because the form of the city itself is changing the way people travel.  In high towers residents are no longer able to make short trips to neighbours by bike, whilst below ground the metro waits to speed Shanghainese further and faster.  At street level the conditions for cycling are no longer pleasant or efficient enough to convince as many people to ride a bike as once was the case.  It's a cliche to quote Joni Mitchell singing "You don't know what you've got till it's gone", but for all its modern style and progress, in the case of Shanghai I'm inclined to agree.

Share |

10 comments:

Emerson Roberts said...

A very good post that chimes with my thoughts as a regular visitor to Shanghai. I first visited in 2004 and the process was well set then, though it has accelerated.

The Brompton Junction in Shanghai has done reasonably well (though not as well as a later retail opening in Beijing) but that worked in part because of the appeal of UK branded quality products.

Chinese cities are condemned to go through the love/hate curve with car ownership that western cities have been on.

ibikelondon said...

Hi Emerson, thanks for sharing your thoughts. It's funny, but I thought about Brompton when I was writing this post. As I understand it there was a distinct lack of appetite for anything Chinese amongst the Chinese consumer base (and the bicycle is as about as potent a symbol of the old China that you can get!) and I wondered if the Britishness of Brompton would make it more or less appealing there.

I understand that attitudes are starting to change and that pride and patriotism is beginning to be introduced to the market, with people prouder of homegrown labels such as Shanghai Tang.

Urbanism in China is fascinating but the speed at which it takes place really is astonishing.

Paul M said...

Well, what goes around, comes around! This has eerie echoes of the changes wrought on my father’s home town of Sheffield in the early sixties.

My granddad, a cold-roller in the Samuel Fox cutlery works, and grandmother lived, and my father and his two sisters were born, in a back-to-back in Addy Street, long since demolished. As the term implies, each house had only a front entrance because in addition to being terraced and directly adjoining houses either side, it directly adjoined the house behind. The houses had neither front nor back gardens, and their doors opened directly onto the street. There was absolutely no question of there being space to park a car. My granddad cycled everywhere, including, in the depression, out onto Lodge Moor to harvest bilberries to sell in the town. I was too young to remember that directly, so I don’t know where he kept his bike!

In the early sixties they were moved, en masse, to Plowright Close http://goo.gl/5h8fBc just off the Gleadless Road, to a brand new deck-access maisonette. It had all mod cons, such as central heating, and a garden – the path however was laid between the front doors and the garden, as a small concession to the traditions of the residents in their old homes, of standing out by their open front doors to shoot the breeze with whoever happened to walk by. Amazingly, the same buildings are still there.

The units also had, amazingly, garages for cars. This, together with the relatively low density (largely tower blocks dotted across large open spaces) and the isolation of the residences from the local parade of shops – a distinctly unappetising underpass to cross a busy road, clearly no concession spared to the motor there – must surely have pushed the younger residents to go out and get their driving licences and their first ever car, in a city once notorious (in a good way) for the quality of its public transport.

I always used to think that young middle-class architects’ romantic notions of providing space and light for their clients would eventually be disabused by reality, but apparently not, at least insofar as the British experience has not informed Chinese architects!

ibikelondon said...

Hi Paul,

Thanks for your insightful comment. I wonder if your cold-rolling grand father ever dreamed you'd be cycling a British steel folding bike around the City of London one day?!

You're right, of course, that it seems as though Shanghai is suffering from the same mistakes we went through in the 1960s. And it's not just in Shanghai either, I recently attended a talk by a young architect who was documenting the loss of street life in Nairobi as "slums" were cleared and the residents moved out to the outskirts (where the 2 hour bus journey back in to town - and commerce - was run by a private operator charging terrifying fares!).

Some of this sort of building comes from architect's romantic visions (as touched on by me previously when writing about Foster's Skycycle and the basis of modernist anti-street thinking) but also architects can only build what they are briefed to do. If the developer and / or local authority only want to spend so much, then this is what architects will deliver. Of course, that's a false economy because the cost of unpicking the mess afterwards, and all the knock on effects of less social cohesion and active travel, is very much greater, but in the case of developers that's really someone else's problem to deal with after they've built the tower, pocketed the cash and cleared out of town. A shame.

Jacob Leland said...

This is a really excellent post, and also reflects my experiences of Beijing, where I've been living and cycle-commuting for about 18 months now. When I first came here in 2006 I was amazed at the cycle infrastructure of the city, but each subsequent visit the it became more and more choked with cars with less and less thought given to other road users (least of all pedestrians), and things have only got worse since living here.
On the face of it the cycle infrastructure here is excellent. Friends from London who visited recently were amazed that it was possible for us to cycle five abreast in the cycle lane than runs along the top of Tiananmen Square. Pretty much every road has a cycle lane (often segregated) which is usually as wide as a car lane.
The problem is motorists' behaviour. It has become very common to park in cycle lanes or at the entrances to them, rendering them non-existent/useless. In 18 months I can count on one hand the number of times I have seen the police give out tickets for this, and they themselves are the worst offenders when it comes to parking in cycle lanes (and on pavements). Even where cycle lanes are largely clear it is common practice for motorists and buses to suddenly pull over into them meaning that one often has to veer into traffic/the door zone, where motorists give little space when overtaking. Also, when turning in or out of side roads motorists almost never give way to cyclists in the cycle lane/door zone, meaning that one has to either cycle very defensively or be good at breaking suddenly! The flipside is that as a cyclist you can do things (like skipping red lights and cycling the wrong way up the road) that would make you the target of abuse in London but here barely raise an eyebrow. I find the lack of enforcement of parking regulations a constant source of bafflement, especially given Beijing's notorious gridlock which is exacerbated by double-(and triple-)parking and cyclists having to ride in the road.
I think a mix of factors are responsible for the decline in cycling, with aspiration being one of the chief culprits, as you mention. Bikes are considered unsightly, on many occasions I have turned up to fancy hotels on a bike to be greeted by abject panic from the security guards who will usually insist I park it round the back near the staff entrance. An emergent fixie culture may mean that China never quite reach a cycling-cultural nadir as deep as Europe's or America's but this is a fairly limited phenomenon for the moment.
(continued in second post)

Jacob Leland said...

This is a really excellent post, and also reflects my experiences of Beijing, where I've been living and cycle-commuting for about 18 months now. When I first came here in 2006 I was amazed at the cycle infrastructure of the city, but each subsequent visit the it became more and more choked with cars with less and less thought given to other road users (least of all pedestrians), and things have only got worse since living here.
On the face of it the cycle infrastructure here is excellent. Friends from London who visited recently were amazed that it was possible for us to cycle five abreast in the cycle lane than runs along the top of Tiananmen Square. Pretty much every road has a cycle lane (often segregated) which is usually as wide as a car lane.
The problem is motorists' behaviour. It has become very common to park in cycle lanes or at the entrances to them, rendering them non-existent/useless. In 18 months I can count on one hand the number of times I have seen the police give out tickets for this, and they themselves are the worst offenders when it comes to parking in cycle lanes (and on pavements). Even where cycle lanes are largely clear it is common practice for motorists and buses to suddenly pull over into them meaning that one often has to veer into traffic/the door zone, where motorists give little space when overtaking. Also, when turning in or out of side roads motorists almost never give way to cyclists in the cycle lane/door zone, meaning that one has to either cycle very defensively or be good at breaking suddenly! The flipside is that as a cyclist you can do things (like skipping red lights and cycling the wrong way up the road) that would make you the target of abuse in London but here barely raise an eyebrow. I find the lack of enforcement of parking regulations a constant source of bafflement, especially given Beijing's notorious gridlock which is exacerbated by double-(and triple-)parking and cyclists having to ride in the road.
I think a mix of factors are responsible for the decline in cycling, with aspiration being one of the chief culprits, as you mention. Bikes are considered unsightly, on many occasions I have turned up to fancy hotels on a bike to be greeted by abject panic from the security guards who will usually insist I park it round the back near the staff entrance. An emergent fixie culture may mean that China never quite reach a cycling-cultural nadir as deep as Europe's or America's but this is a fairly limited phenomenon for the moment.
(continued in second post)

Jacob Leland said...

(continued from previous post)
As you also mention, urban planning too has had a huge effect. Beijing's answer to the Shikumen, the hutongs, with their narrow alleys, are the perfect place to cycle and haven't yet been bulldozed into oblivion, but these days you often see four or five bikes waiting behind an SUV as it tries to squeeze its way through the alleys at a snail's pace (interestingly no one ever seems to get annoyed by this). This is a facet of the gentrification happening in the hutongs, whereby poorer residents are being relocated to the city's fringes (where, as everywhere for time immemorial, they are impressed by having a toilet and central heating but miss their friends and local amenities), and there houses are then demolished and turned into luxury villas in ye olde Chinese style, albeit with in-built garages. In the newer regions in the urban periphery of Beijing it seems that the worst excesses of postwar American urban planning are very much in vogue, with pavements often non-existent.
The hugely ambitious expansion of the metro has also had a great effect here; it will be interesting to see if the planned fare rise on the Beijing metro (which is massively overcrowded due to the world's lowest ticket price of 20p per ride) will push people back onto bikes.
Ultimately I am pretty pessimistic about the situation, which I think will get a lot worse before it gets any better. The government remains staunchly pro-car, with fining for jaywalking a recent unfortunate addition (especially galling given that turning right on a red is permitted, with cars doing so almost never slowing for pedestrians crossing on the green man, but instead speeding up and honking for them to get out of the way), and most cyclists are waiting for a day they can buy a car and realise their lifelong dream of sitting in a traffic jam for four hours a day. The only silver lining on the massive cloud of smog that usually envelops this city is that increasing public anger about pollution may prompt the government to

Jacob Leland said...

oops - one more bit! ...take some action against cars, such as introducing a congestion charge.

David Hembrow said...

Mark: Very interesting to see. While cars are aspirational in China (as reflected by your experience of advertisements), none of your photos of bicycles look aspirational. People on the edge, transporting goods on clapped out bikes, are not what other people grow up wanting to emulate.

Relatively high sales of Brompton bikes show another side of the same thing - they're sold as a status symbol more than as a means of transport.

I've never been to China, but sadly I saw this coming. The Chinese a decade ago were not motivated to cycle for the same reasons as the Dutch. It was through need, a lack of choice. Rather than cycling while their car remained parked at home, they were cycling while dreaming of cars.

Jacob: Is there any place in the world with a congestion charge and a high cycling modal share ? The highest modal shares come from making cycling pleasant, not from making driving inconvenient.

Beijing is already one of the worst cities in the world for driving. Making it worse is probably not a very good way of getting people out of cars. Auctioning number plates doesn't seem to have been terribly successful.

Jacob Leland said...

David: The point I was trying to make is that Beijing probably already has the world's best bicycle infrastructure if you just include the amount of road space given to bikes. It also has far better road infrastructure than any European city, with six- to eight-lane highways being the norm inside the city, and five highway-type ring roads linking trunk roads.
The problem is that there are simply too many vehicles, over 5 million by latest count, and that Beijing is also a classic radial city with most places of work, and therefore congestion, being concentrated within the third ring road. The government has tried to tackle this through various schemes as you mention, but many rich people have circumvented the license plate restrictions that preclude cars from the centre on a particular day simply by buying more than one car, using their money or connections to circumvent the lottery. Even as the waiting list becomes increasingly long the fact is there are already too many cars on the roads, and thousands of new cars are added every week.
A related problem is the lack of parking spaces, I have never seen a multi-story car park or parking towers as you see in places like Tokyo, even though the population density in central Beijing (within the second ring road) is much greater than Tokyo. Therefore people simply park their cars in cycle lanes or on the pavements. As I said before, it is very rare for such behaviour to be penalised (and the rare penalties are too low to be much of a deterrent).
I believe that road pricing would be an effective way to control traffic. As the Beijing public transport system is already overcrowded (unlike in the Dutch cities you gave as en example) it is likely that those discouraged from driving would switch to car-pooling or perhaps cycling, as there is no space for them on the metro.
However, far more effective in my opinion would be to enforce parking regulations and charge a higher place for parking. Land value in Beijing is extremely high, and therefore it is a strange paradox that millions of motorists are allowed to occupy several square meters of public land with their vehicles on an indefinite basis for free. Even with its horrendous congestion, driving remains an attractive option in Beijing as motorists don't need to worry about finding or paying for a parking space when they can just park their car on the pavement for free. Even the paid parking is extremely cheap. Enforcing parking regulations would also have the effect of freeing up the ubiquitous cycle lanes for their original purpose of cycling. This would make cycling safer and more convenient and would exercise something or a pull-effect to interact with the push effect of road pricing.