The return of commuter cycling in Beijing?

Is bicycling for transport in Beijing on the upswing?

When I was working on my PhD thesis, part of which examined developments in Beijing, one story in the immediate market liberalisation phase was about the dethroning of the bicycle by the car.

At its peak, in 1980 the bicycle mode share was 62.6% of all trips (Zhao 2014a, 53). This is a staggering rate of bicycle use. By 2012 bicycle mode share had dropped to 14% (BUZA 2015). This trajectory is represented in the figure below.

Assembled from (Zhang et al. 2014, p.322; Rhoads 2012, p.111; Sit 1996, p.265; Zhao 2014b, p.3)

However, there are indications that bicycling may yet be coming back. News media have recently been using terms such as “craze” and “stylish” to describe the resurgence of bicycling in Beijing, and other cities in China (Bland 2017; Tatlow 2017).


This is a startling transformation. In November 1998, bicycles were banned from a street called Xisidong Avenue in an effort to relieve car congestion (Rosenthal 1998). Cycling was also stigmatised with driving considered the new status symbol (Lu Rucai 2007; Zhao 2014a). In an often quoted remark, in 2010 a contestant on a television show when queried about her willingness to ride a bicycle during a date said “I’d rather cry in the back of a BMW than smile on a bicycle”(Wetherhold 2012).

Colleagues who have recently been in Beijing confirm the pronounced ubiquity of bicycles. One said:

Almost every week it seems as though another bike sharing company has been set up in Beijing. There must be hundreds of thousands of people using shared bikes every day

In another instance:

I am amazed I am at the explosion in shared cycling in China’s cities. In one year it has changed dramatically; quite a reversal, with cycling now a really fashionable thing to do. In Beijing and Shanghai there are now about five or six companies involved in bike sharing.

Another said:

…A miracle that I wasn’t run over by a bicycle or silent scooter. It’s been a very rapid change, possibly since Njogu visited Beijing for his thesis…Several such companies are parking swipe-and-ride bikes absolutely everywhere, lots of smiling cyclists swarming everywhere (some not very experienced) and very worried pedestrians dodging them…

How do we understand this? More work to be done to comprehend China.


Bland, Ben. 2017. “China’s Bicycle-Sharing Boom Poses Hazards for Manufacturers.” Financial Times, May 4.

BUZA, Ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken. 2015. “Dutch and Chinese Experts Develop Beijing Bicycle Plan | Netherlands Embassy and Consulates, China.” May.

Lu Rucai. 2007. “Safeguard the Bike.” China Today 56 (1): 28–31.

Rhoads, E.J.M., 2012. Cycles of Cathay: A History of the Bicycle in China. Transfers, 2(2), pp.95–120.

Rosenthal, Elisabeth. 1998. “Beijing Journal; Tide of Traffic Turns Against the Sea of Bicycles.” The New York Times, November 3, sec. World.

Sit, V.F., 1996. Beijing: Urban Transport Issues in a Socialist Third World Setting (1949–1992). Journal of Transport Geography, 4(4), pp.253–273.

Tatlow, Didi Kirsten. 2017. “In Beijing, Two Wheels Are Only a Smartphone Away.” The New York Times, March 19, sec. Asia Pacific.

Wetherhold, Sherley. 2012. “The Bicycle as Symbol of China’s Transformation.” Atlantic Cities, June 30.

Zhang, H., Shaheen, S.A. & Chen, X., 2014. Bicycle Evolution in China: From the 1900s to the Present. International Journal of Sustainable Transportation, 8(5), pp.317–335.

Zhao, P., 2014a. Private motorised urban mobility in China’s large cities: The social causes of change and an agenda for future research. Journal of Transport Geography, 40, pp.53–63.

Zhao, P., 2014b. The Impact of the Built Environment on Bicycle Commuting: Evidence from Beijing. Urban Studies (Sage Publications, Ltd.), 51(5), pp.1 019–1 037.






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