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.





Where are the users of Johannesburg’s bicycle lanes?

In the last few years bicycle lanes have been built in Johannesburg. These were intended to stimulate a commuter cycling culture in the wake of growing road congestion and awareness of the negative economic, health, social and, environmental consequences of private car dependency (City of Johannesburg 2009).

Instead of immediately enticing users because of their safety advantage, the bicycle lanes instead stimulated more howls of outrage than actual usage. A popular argument was that it was a bad allocation of resources in the face of other more pressing needs (e.g. Madibogo 2016). In this line of argument, bicycle lanes were a luxury for the rich even though majority of people who already use bicycles for transport fall in lower income brackets. In spite of the flaws in the argument, it was used as a basis for putting on hold bicycle lane development (Cox 2016).

A bicycle lane along Enoch Sontonga Avenue

The question then is how do we understand why the bicycle lanes did not immediately attract hoards of users?

Scholars in transition studies (e.g. Geels 2005), social practice theory (e.g. Shove et al. 2012) and the mobilities literature (e.g. Sheller & Urry 2000) have drawn attention to the systemic dimensions of transport. For these scholars, ways of moving about are conceived of as comprised of a range of different but aligned elements. These include the transportation technology, industries, social groups and institutions, infrastructures, symbolic meanings, habits, social norms, knowledge and subjectivities. For a transportation system to work all the different elements above have to exist. To take a simple example, cars could not be driven if there were no roads or users did not know how to drive them.

A second important insight from this scholarship, is that the transportation system is itself nested in place, meaning that existing characteristics of places shape formation of the system. Some examples of characteristics of places include social values, existing alternative transportation systems (and the different elements that go with), politics, religious beliefs, (in)equality, gender roles, topography, and economic systems – to name a few. To take an extreme but illustrative case, due to religious beliefs, women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive cars – though there are efforts to change this (Taylor 2016).

With this perspective, some answers to the low usage of bicycle lanes are evident. To begin with, the various other elements that constitute a bicycle commuting system have not yet fully formed and aligned together. A forthcoming study by the Centre for Anthropological Research at the University of Johannesburg reveals staggeringly low levels of bicycle ownership. More than 70% of respondents living, working or studying near some bicycle lanes connecting two universities do not own bicycles. For sure this is not surprising given the long history of hollowing out utility cycling in Johannesburg (Morgan 2017). As such City of Johannesburg officials merit significant recognition for mounting an initiative set to change the tide of history.

Secondly there are place specific characteristics that inhibit potential bicycle users. In addition to concerns about blockages (rubble for example) on the bicycle lanes, research exploring the reasons for low uptake of bicycle lanes found that “lack of respect for cyclists and the cycling lane[s], stigma of being a cyclist [and] lack of road safety for cycle users” (Crowhurst et al. 2015, p.11) as barriers. These factors were collaborated by another study which also argued that “potential cyclists may find the system difficult to navigate as a fully integrated and linked system does not yet exist” (Dos Santos et al. 2015, p.5). With the latter argument, the researchers were pointing to the limited extent of the bicycling lanes. Potential bicycle users are also held back by real and perceived concerns of personal safety (theft).

In conclusion, a perspective that conceives of bicycling more systemically and situates it in place can lend insight into the current low levels of utilisation of the bicycling lanes in Johannesburg. The bicycle lanes can then be understood as but one of the necessary elements required for a vibrant commuter cycling culture. A ‘build it and they will come’ approach which relies heavily on bicycling infrastructure will surely not work in isolation. A more useful perspective on the role of bicycle infrastructure is provided by Schoner et al. (2015, p.7) who “in a study into the relationship between bicycle infrastructure and decisions to travel by bicycle” conclude that “bicycle lanes act as ‘magnets’ to attract bicyclists to a neighborhood, rather than being the ‘catalyst’ that encourages non-bikers to shift modes.”

Given my exposure as a member of the Johannesburg Urban Cyclists Association, I am aware that policy-makers in the city of Johannesburg were moving towards a more systemic approach in supporting commuter cycling. There were (and are) intentions for example to increase bicycle access along the university corridor whether through bicycling sharing schemes or through rental models. The difficultly is that these ideas followed the bicycle lanes – they did not go in concert with building the other elements of the commuter cycling system.

More users of Johannesburg’s bicycle lanes will come when other elements of the commuting bicycling system are built and the place-specific obstacles are addressed. Even in the face of city council hostility to transportation cycling, I am aware that there are many other actors working to support the practice. Furthermore, elections come and go so Johannesburg residents could make other choices in the future that reduce road congestion and noise, clean the air, produce healthier residents and more.


City of Johannesburg, 2009. Framework for Non-Motorised Transport.

Cox, A., 2016. Joburg Mayor Mashaba’s shock move | IOL. IOL. Available at: [Accessed September 14, 2016].

Crowhurst, R. et al., 2015. Users and Potential Users’ Perceptions of the Cycle Lanes and Their Intentions to Utilise Them. Johannesburg, South Africa: University of the Witwatersrand. Available at: [Accessed August 15, 2016].

Dos Santos, N. et al., 2015. Other Road Users Perceptions & Attitudes Towards the Cycle Lanes. Johannesburg, South Africa: University of the Witwatersrand. Available at: [Accessed August 15, 2016].

Geels, F.W., 2005. Processes and patterns in transitions and system innovations: Refining the co-evolutionary multi-level perspective. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 72(6), pp.681–696.

Madibogo, J., 2016. There won’t be bicycle lanes in Sandton‚ says Malema. Times LIVE. Available at:’t-be-bicycle-lanes-in-Sandton‚-says-Malema [Accessed July 25, 2016].

Morgan, N., 2017. An inquiry into changes in everyday bicycling cultures: the case of Johannesburg in conversation with Amsterdam, Beijing and Chicago. Johannesburg, South Africa: University of the Witwatersrand.

Schoner, J.E., Cao, J. & Levinson, D.M., 2015. Catalysts and magnets: Built environment and bicycle commuting. Journal of Transport Geography, 47, pp.100–108.

Sheller, M. & Urry, J., 2000. The City and the Car. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 24(4), pp.737–757.

Shove, E., Pantzar, M. & Watson, M., 2012. The Dynamics of Social Practice: Everyday Life and how it Changes, Los Angeles: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Taylor, A., 2016. A social media campaign to get Saudi women driving finds support but also mockery. Washington Post. Available at: [Accessed March 14, 2017].





Place and bicycling cultures

Why do places exhibit sometimes very different bicycling cultures? Some being predominated by cycling as a sport or for recreation. While in others, people may use bicycles mainly for transportation? In others the use of bicycles maybe as varied as can be imagined.

Why is it some places may start from a broadly similar appraisal and practices and then radically diverge over time? I am currently researching a variation of this question. The historical evidence shows in two neighboring towns in South Africa, high levels of utility cycling at the turn of the 20th century. On Johannesburg see previous post. These urban areas, Springs and Johannesburg, with similar origins as mining hubs are about 50 kilometers (31 miles) apart.

Springs sustained a reasonably robust commuter cycling culture for sometime. From the 1930s into the 1950s and 1980s Springs built separated and barrier protected cycling tracks. In Johannesburg however, there is scant historical evidence of catering for bicycle users on the road network – apart for some painted white lines on one of the major arterial routes.

In the 1970s, during the fuel crises, there was a genuine interest in rediscovering bicycling as  amode of transport in Springs. See image below.

Source: Springs Advertiser, Courtesy of Springs – History of A Gold Town

In Johannesburg however, while there were policy measures to reduce private motor car use, it was reported that residents generally stuck to their autos. Even those who stuck to their autos, largely failed to share journeys – in the form of car pooling (Clarke 1987, p.219).

How do we understand these different trajectories? This is the broad question I am working on. By sometime in October 2017 I should have an answer.


  • Clarke, J. ed., 1987. Like it was: The Star 100 years in Johannesburg, Johannesburg: Argus Print. & Pub. Co.





Chicago’s evolving bicycle culture

In December of 2016, I visited Chicago on a short holiday.

Chicago was one of my secondary study sites for my recently completed PhD into changes into the symbolic status of everyday cycling. I took a historical view examining changes over time. Given this perspective I was curious to observe street level changes since my last study visit in April 2015.

I was pleasantly surprised that even in subzero weather, there were people bicycling.

There has also been a noticeable evolution in the kinds of bicycles on the streets. I observed more bicycles better suited to everyday cycling such as the one below which allows comfortable upright posture, easy on and off maneuver given step through frame, and hassle light long term maintenance given integrated brakes and gears. Of course notice the pannier racks in the back for luggage.


Bicycles and bicycling also appears to be more integrated and thus normalised into social life including as a commodity item to sell other goods. I saw bicycles in mainstream restaurants, bars, retail stores, advertisements in trains, and other places.

This of course is not to suggest that utility cycling in Chicago is now fantastic. As the image below of a white bike shows, which records a bicycling fatality in public memory, bicycling can be dangerous in Chicago.


The infrastructure continues to evolve with city council embracing protected bicycle lanes. This should improve safety and attract more users.


The bicycle share programme which is a personal favourite – Divvy – is also doing well. I used their bicycles on a few occasions with great pleasure. Their advertisements are fantastic I think. “Muscle mass transit” – how apt.

The mode share of bicycling in Chicago does seem set to continue growing. It offers an optimistic story of shifting towards sustainable transportation from a very low base.

Bicycle mode share trends in Chicago. Assembled from (Berkow & Falbo 2014, p.3; Vance 2015)



Berkow, M. & Falbo, N., 2014. Chicago Bike Monitoring 2014: Technical Report, Available at:

Vance, S., 2015. New Census Data Says Chicago’s Bike Mode Share Is at an All-Time High | Streetsblog Chicago. StreetsBlog Chicago. Available at: [Accessed August 29, 2016].


Johannesburg’s past vibrant bicycle culture

A visitor to Johannesburg would be hard pressed to identify a vibrant utilitarian bicycle culture. Most residents perhaps imagine that not only is it impossible to create one, there also has never existed one.

On the contrary. Up to 1935 there more bicycles registered by city council than automobiles. See the figure below that I created from council records.


Prior to this then, it was routine for council and others to support everyday cycling. In 1901 the town council decided to support its employees in purchasing bicycles. In arriving at the decision, a committee of the council argued:

This committee is of opinion that a considerable number of the Council’s employees could with advantage perform their duties on bicycles, and think the best plan will be for the Council to grant these officials a fixed allowance and allow them to find their own machines (City of Johannesburg 1901, p.130).

Such financial support continued for at least the next two decades given the available evidence trail.

Later in 1905, the council voted and agreed to fund the construction of bicycle parking at a town cemetery. In so doing they argued:

It is considered necessary to provide some place where visitors to the Cemetery can leave their cycles, and we propose that a cycle rack should be erected near the main entrance at a cost of £20” (City of Johannesburg 1905a, p.1127).

In an earlier post, I showed that in 1935 the city council allocated cycling lanes along Louis Botha Avenue. The were described “as the city’s first experimental cycle track, a white line a few feet from, and parallel to, the left hand kerb, cutting of a strip of the road for the use of pedal cyclists” (Unknown 1935).

So what?

Johannesburg once had a vibrant everyday cycling culture. And just as it was created and supported by council, bicycle shops, enthusiasts, and many others, so it was destroyed. The story of the processes of destruction are for another time.

It follows then that it can be built up. Just as many other cities around the world are doing currently because they have realised the limits of automobility. Many formerly car centric cities (which also were bicycle cities at point) have seen their bicycle mode share grow remarkably. Chicago, a city that I have also been studying is a good example.

Bicycle mode share trends in Chicago . Sources: (Berkow & Falbo 2014, p.3; Vance 2015)


  • Berkow, M. & Falbo, N., 2014. Chicago Bike Monitoring 2014: Technical Report, Available at:
  • City of Johannesburg, 1901. Minutes of the Meetings. Johannesburg, South Africa: Radford, Adlington, Ltd.
  • City of Johannesburg, 1905. Council Minutes, City of Johannesburg. Johannesburg, South Africa: Radford, Adlington, Ltd.
  • Unknown, 1935. More attempts at traffic solution: Cycle lanes and lectures for school children. The Star.
  • Vance, S., 2015. New Census Data Says Chicago’s Bike Mode Share Is at an All-Time High | Streetsblog Chicago. StreetsBlog Chicago. Available at: [Accessed August 29, 2016].


Chicago is increasingly a bicycle friendly City

The new lanes help a lot:

Protected bi-directional lane in Chicago

So do the emerging innovative beautiful bike parking forms such as this one:

Corrals in Andersonville

And this one:







And of course the brand new bike share scheme called Divvy:

Divvy bikes in the loop

And when you need to take a break from all the peddling you might find a parklet such as this one:

Parklet in Andersonville

Or if you need a coffee and fix your bike – at the same time, then head over to Heritage Bicycles.

I will be watching Chicago’ evolution.