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BEIJING — Bike sharing is the latest obsession to grab the Chinese. In the past year, bike-sharing stations have popped up throughout major cities, helping fuel a resurgence of bike riding in the country’s ever-expanding metropolises.
The tech-driven bike-sharing companies have given China’s smog-shrouded cities a bright new identity, one that their increasingly cosmopolitan, environmentally conscious dwellers are embracing, after enduring years of overcrowded public transportation and streets dominated by reckless car drivers. Anyone with a smartphone in most major cities can pick up a bike, drive it across town and drop it off, at a very low cost.
For a society in breathless pursuit of progress and sophistication, the return of bike riding might seem like a turning back of the clock.
Cycling’s first wave of popularity began in the late 1970s, when economic reforms gradually eased the country out of the Mao-era destitution. Bikes were the earliest luxury goods, private property that, along with watches and sewing machines, was considered a must-have of affluent families. The limited supply was rationed. A bicycle cost more than twice the average monthly income of an urban family.
The bicycle eventually became the main means of private transportation among urban dwellers and a potent symbol of personal freedom. A bachelor with a sturdy, stately Flying Pigeon — the most popular bike brand in the early days — was one with whom a girl could start a life, the saying went.
The soaring number of bikes on the streets established a new order to city life. Crowds of pedestrians gave way to steady flows of riders. A small space of privacy in an otherwise rigidly controlled society had been opened up. Surrounded by a sea of bikers, young couples floated on two wheels, one steering and the other on the crossbar, whispering into each other’s ears.
This taste for liberty and prosperity helped engender greater expectations. In the spring of 1989, calls for a pro-democracy protest summoned tens of thousands of students and workers to Tiananmen Square, many on their bikes. After the declaration of martial law brought public transportation to a halt, messengers cycled from one university campus to the next, delivering strategies and updates. Sympathetic citizens turned their bikes into food stalls and water stands to serve protesters.
By the early 2000s, the Chinese began spending their newfound wealth on cars, the latest symbol of middle-class success, and bicycles were pushed off the roads. Cars flooded the streets and took over bike lanes, and bicycle riding became dangerous.
Economic forces have helped fuel the comeback. The global wave of tech entrepreneurship has reached China. Backed by a state intent on increasing domestic innovation, flush investment firms are looking for the next big thing. And the public is increasingly accustomed to the comfort and free choice of a capitalist economy. Meanwhile, cities keep growing, and public transportation can’t keep up.
There have been some negative side effects of the bike-sharing boom. In many urban areas, carelessly parked bikes encroach on limited sidewalk space already crowded with pedestrians and street vendors. Bikes with missing wheels and shattered frames pop up in bushes and rivers. Cases of theft and accidents have made newspaper headlines.
Some city governments have responded with new regulations. Some, such as parking rules and time limits for companies to return customers’ deposits upon request, have been met with applause. But others are clear examples of bureaucratic overreach.
The southern city of Shenzhen, for example, plans to record all individuals who violate its bike-user code in a state-run social credit database. Shanghai asks shared bikes to be scrapped after three years of use and places strict age and height limits on riders. Beijing has declared much of its historical district off-limits to shared-bike parking.
These efforts to regulate bike sharing are misguided — and risk sapping the vitality from the industry. In the past decade, China’s transportation ecosystem has shaped itself around the automobile boom, with roads constantly widened to accommodate the cars, to the detriment of sidewalks and bike lanes. It’s time the government turns its attention to more cycling-friendly development. Working with, not against, bike-sharing companies is a good first step.
Users of shared-bike apps typically say that bike-sharing helps them solve their “last mile” problem by offering a way to cover the distance between public transportation stops and their final destinations.
City planners need to do their part. Chinese urbanites, having gained the material freedom to travel in style, now desire a habitat hospitable to biking.