July 01, 2006

China to Remain a ‘Kingdom of Bicycles’?

China back on the bicycle bandwagon?

There are signs that China, faced with energy shortages as well as worsening congestion and air pollution, is turning its attention back to encouraging cycling in its cities. A senior Minister in June criticized the Beijing city administration for making it harder for cyclists to get around, saying that the country should retain its title as the kingdom of bicycles ‘at all costs’. Vice Minister of Construction, Qiu Baoxing, noted that the number of motor vehicles on China’s roads rose 20 times between 1978 and 2004 and that their numbers could increase five fold again by 2020. Qiu said some Chinese cities are squeezing bicycle lanes in order to make more room for cars, but that the Ministry of Construction is firmly opposed to the elimination of bicycle lanes and has ordered cities to restore them.  Recent evidence indicates, however, that Chinese cities have a large degree of independence from the central government on issues of urban transport policy.

Shanghai cracks down on pedestrians and cyclists

In a large organized campaign against minor pedestrian and cyclist traffic infractions, from mid-April to late June Shanghai traffic police punished 112,000 jaywalkers and a staggering 347,000 cyclists. The measures are proclaimed as a ‘campaign against traffic violations’, but the target has overwhelmingly been pedestrians and cyclists, rather than drivers. Five people were jailed in the first two weeks of the campaign for venting their indignation; one woman for ten days.

The Municipal Office for Promoting Cultural and Ethical Progress wants to set up billboards in busy downtown locations to post photos of jaywalkers in an attempt to shame people out of the practice. Shanghai’s traffic police are posting photos of jaywalking pedestrians at places of employment along Huaihai Road. The city is notifying violators’ employers and encouraging people to take videos of traffic violations. Some link this unprecedented campaign to a new merit-based system within the police department that evaluates officers according to the number of fines they hand out.

Shanghai’s campaign is now being extended. The traffic police are organizing teams in 10 districts, including Pudong New Area and Haungpu District, to regulate 100 small roads that police describe as ‘lacking management’.

While pedestrians and cyclists may be fined, jailed, lose their jobs or subjected to public humiliation, motorists who drive through green pedestrian signals appear to be treated differently. Zhu Weimin, head of the general team of traffic police, sees such motorists as having merely disregarded a ‘common courtesy’ and who require a ‘warning or fine’, as he explained to the Shanghai Daily.

Nanjing and Hangzhou follow suit

Hangzhou and Nanjing have also developed new policies to crackdown on pedestrian violators. Under the Nanjing proposals, in addition to being fined, habitual jaywalkers will be punished at their workplace through reduced bonuses and blocked promotions. The proposed measures were widely ridiculed. Attorney Liu Zhengchao of the Contemporary Security Law Firm was quoted in the China Daily questioning the proposal. “People’s salaries should be based on professional performance. It is nonsense to say their wages could be affected by things that happen outside of work,” said Liu.

Whether or not China really does remain a ‘kingdom of bicycles’, then, will depend not on policy pronouncements or even legislation from the central government, but rather on actions taken by city-level officials.

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