By Daizong Liu, Xianyuan Zhu and Alphonse Tam, Institute for Transportation and Development Policy China
In the 1980s, Chinese cities often had thousands of cyclists take to the streets during rush hour and the country was often recognised as a “Kingdom of Bicycles” by foreigners. By the 1990s, however, cycling as a primary transport mode saw a steady decline due to Western influence, urban growth, and rapid economic development. Cities sprawled, car ownership surged and China’s once cycling-forward streets became congested roadways for motor vehicles. By the middle of the 20th century, China had moved towards a harmful urban planning model that prioritised outward growth, car culture and highway development.
This paradigm shift of cycling has exacerbated urban emissions and pollution nationwide as motorised transport and fossil fuel consumption became dominant. However, with the recent growing attention to the country’s role in the climate crisis, Chinese cities are leading the charge toward change by rethinking their urban development strategies. To meet national emissions reduction targets, cities must commit to more sustainable mobility projects that will help to rebuild this “Kingdom of Cycling”.
The many economic, environmental, and health benefits of urban cycling have been made evident with recent research. At the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), we have measured the positive impacts of safe cycling infrastructure can have on economies, from manufacturing to tourism, as well as on the environment and health of cities. To harness the many potential benefits of urban cycling, governments, private entities, and funders (such as development banks) must prioritise cycling-forward projects and policies. In addition, related issues such as road safety, sustainable land use and universal street design should also be addressed in tandem.
Around the world, there is currently a significant opportunity to leverage the surge in cycling that arose during the COVID-19 pandemic – a surge that boosted economies and renewed interest in cycling for leisure, daily travel and goods delivery. In China alone, bicycle sales are expected to reach $16.5 billion by 2026, with the number of bike owners already reaching 120 million in 2020. Beyond that, there are approximately 350 million e-bikes on the country’s roads and an extensive national fleet of 14.9 million shared bicycles, estimated to help reduce 890,000 tons of CO2 emissions annually. The spark of a new cycling revolution in China is here; cities, institutions, and funders must work together to ensure it thrives.
For China, in particular, densely populated cities require improvements to infrastructure and street conditions that make cycling safer, easier, and more accessible to all communities. ITDP China’s recent report, Women on Wheels, revealed that numerous gender disparities exist in cycling in Chinese cities based on studies of Beijing, Guangzhou, and Nanning. If cycling is to be established as an essential transport mode, all people must feel safe and protected on the road. The report found that women accounted for less than 30% of total cyclists and these percentages often correlated with the quality, safety, and connectivity of each city’s infrastructure. For the cycling sector to truly realise its climate and economic benefits, cities must commit to streets and neighbourhoods that put the needs of all people first, regardless of gender, age, or ability.
At the same time, some promising progress is being made in Chinese cities. The national government has been receptive to highlighting sustainable and active transport by including concepts like “low carbon travel” and “green travel” in its national 14th Five-Year Plan and Peak Carbon Action Plan strategies. These plans set a framework for cities nationwide and local and provincial authorities are now looking to reshape urban policies and infrastructure that better highlight walking, cycling, and public transit. For example, the capital city of Beijing put forth a comprehensive plan to make the city more cycling-oriented by 2035. Beijing began this work in 2019 by developing 6-metre-wide, elevated, bike-only lanes to help ease congestion between dense residential areas and busy office districts. The projects are already yielding results: according to ITDP’s analysis, e-bike riders in Beijing now represent approximately 23% of commuters who have shifted from driving and ride-hailing services as their primary transport mode. This shift has contributed to an annual reduction in fuel consumption of nearly 59.86 million litres and an estimated decrease in CO2 emissions of 240,000 tons.
In Guangzhou, citywide efforts have also focused on improving bike lanes’ quality and connectivity. Between 2021 and 2022, 468 bike lanes were renovated in the city, and over 500 kilometres (km) are currently under renovation in 2023. Due to the city’s narrow roads, most of the expansion of bike lanes relies on reclaiming space from vehicles and giving equal space to cyclists and pedestrians. Guangzhou is also trying to improve its greenways with plans to build 6,000 km by 2025.
Similarly, the city of Yichang, in central China, has been modelling a low carbon future by re-developing more space for cycling and walking. In 2019, Yichang adopted a plan to build a 570km-network of bicycle lanes, covering nearly 36% of the city. A particularly high-profile cycling corridor debuted in 2021 that now links Yichang’s busy central shopping district with the popular Yangtze Riverside Park and other green spaces.
With the spotlight on rising emissions and climate mitigation ahead of COP28, sustainable urban mobility must be a focal point in the global conversation. As part of this, cycling should be recognised as a resilient, inclusive, and affordable mode of transport for people worldwide, especially in the Global South. Designing urban spaces to highlight safety and connectivity encourages more people to choose low carbon modes of mobility. In a rapidly urbanising country like China, returning to cycling and shifting away from emissions-heavy vehicles can have a tremendous positive impact. Some progress is already being made, but China and other global leaders must commit to more resources, actionable policies, and funding mechanisms to keep it moving forward.