Last month Londoners woke up to the sight of a lot more cyclists on their roads. Most of them were riding distinctive grey and blue bikes – 5,000 of which were available for hire at 315 special docking stations sprinkled across the British capital. The scheme is the brainchild of the city’s mayor, Boris Johnson.
“My crusade for the capital to become the greatest big cycling city in the world has taken a gigantic pedal-powered push forwards,” Johnson told the BBC, in typically understated style.
A worthy goal, but perhaps Boris forgot about China when he concocted his superlatives. Hangzhou, for instance, already operates a scheme with ten times the number of free bikes on offer.
Other Chinese cities – in an effort to reduce traffic and pollution – are also rolling out free bike schemes. In fact, a week after Johnson’s programme went into action in London, Shandong province’s Yantai launched its own.
Residents there seemed pleased. “It is so convenient for me to take a bicycle for free at the station, which is just a few metres from where I live,” Li Bingran, an office worker, told the China Daily. “It halves my commute time.” Zhao Xiaoyu, a 27 year-old local, added: “I live about three kilometres from my office. I prefer taking a bike rather than driving a car over that distance, especially in the spring and autumn since a bike is environmentally friendly.”
Like the London programme, users have to register before they can unlock a bike from one of Yantai’s docking stations. Unlike London the first hour is free (it costs a pound in London, with hire for 24 hours rising steeply to £50).
City planners across China see such bike schemes as an antidote to the nation’s growing love affair with the car – a trend that is leading to increasingly chronic congestion. Officials may not be able to turn the clock back to an earlier era when, according to Xinhua, China had 500 million bicyclists. But by making it free and convenient to cycle around city streets, the numbers may be on the rise again.
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