While Paris and London hog the world’s media attention with Boris’ Bikes and the Velib, by some accounts the Chinese city of Hangzhou now boasts the world’s largest and most used public shared bicycle system. Rory McMullan, contributing editor, reports on his impressions of the city, its transport network and the public bike system from an on-street carbon-free visit during the Chinese New Year.
Hangzhou has a lot going for it; the spectacular West Lake bounded by mountains on one side and the city on the other, Zhizhang University, one of China’s finest, Alibaba the website where over 1 million Chinese manufacturers advertise their wares is headquartered here and unlike many places in modern day China, overall the transport system has managed to complement, rather than detract from the liveability of the city.
Consequently Hangzhou has amongst the highest property prices in China, and the developers have been hard at work. I entered Hangzhou in a friend’s car, which sped along the elevated highway that took us through what appeared to be over 20 kilometres of outer suburbs, passing row upon row of residential tower blocks and large gated communities of houses for the rich.
While we had travelled over 300 km in under 3 hours, the final eleven from the end of the highway to our hotel took over an hour, highlighting the problem facing most Chinese cities today, which is how to deal with the immense surge in traffic. Hangzhou is one of the richest and best managed cities in China and is therefore seen as a potential template for others to follow, which makes their experiment with public shared bikes so interesting to study.
Orientation to Hangzhou City
Despite the reputation as a beautiful place, away from the lake, the city proper is much like many others in China, due to rapid population growth most of the older buildings have been bulldozed to make way for modern glass and concrete towers, while the new parts of the city have been constructed along wide straight roads in a grid pattern with long walks between blocks.
Despite these handicaps, the city still feels like a pleasant enough place, it suffers from traffic congestion, but this at least keeps the cars from going too quickly. The wide roads may make crossing the road feel like a 100m sprint, but also allow for a segregated bicycle lane network.
Figure 1 typical street scene
Of course the jewel in the crown of the transport system is the public shared bike system, the network of over 2100 bike stations really is quite impressive spread liberally throughout Hangzhou on a ten kilometre diameter.
We had chosen a hotel that was five or six kilometres from the lake and the city centre, partly as parking in the central parts of Hangzhou is relatively expensive at 5 – 10RMB (50p – £1) an hour, and most public roads, pavements and alleyways are seemingly manned by senior citizens
who act as parking attendants, which I think is a wonderful way to provide an income for the elderly.
When I strolled out of my hotel to one of the thousands of bike stations, I discovered the only way to rent a bike was to use a smart card, which were sold in only four outlets in the city, all in the centre of town close to the lake. The system is still new, and I understand that the lack of outlets for the card is being rectified, but this still left me with a bit of a problem.
Hangzhou by bus
Fortunately the bus network is good too, with regular buses along most routes, and bike stations seem to be located very close to bus stops making for convenient modal integration. Hangzhou has a BRT-Lite system of well designed stations served by low floor buses, some of which are articulated, making for easy access and short dwell times, although it is noticeable how often private cars seem to invade the bus lanes which are only marked by signs and paint, rather than physically divided from traffic, although the bus drivers manage to force their way through traffic at a good speed.
Figure 3 BRT Station
Figure 4 BRT Station
Despite the excellent build and design of the bus stations I could find little in the way of route maps, which would be helpful for someone who does not know the names of his destination, but does know approximately where he wants to go. The bus drivers I found to be exceedingly helpful, and once I unfurled my map and pointed to where I was headed, they told me the bus numbers to take and told me when to get off.
The public bike system
Once at the central bike station renting a bicycle is relatively easy, simply provide proof of i.d., for which I used my passport, and in return for 300 RMB (GB£30) cash of which 200 RMB is a deposit I finally got my hands on a smart card. The attendant explained how to use the bikes, and gave a map marking all the bike stations, some marked in blue which are fully automatic and operate between 8am – 9pm and ones marked in red are 24-hour manned ones mostly positioned at key junctions throughout the network. The manned stations act like mini-tourist information offices and apart from information on bikes also have a collection of brochures about things to do in the city.
The system itself is very quick and easy to use, simply rest the card on the sensor for 5 seconds and the bike unlocks, and follow the same process but in reverse to return the bike. There is also a device at each station where it is possible to check your account details such as how much credit you have on your card, a list of all of the trips you have made, and whether you have returned the bike correctly.
The bikes are free to ride for the first hour and charged at 2 RMB for every hour after that. As it was Chinese New Year I was not able to get in touch with the transport department to ask for details of usage, or costs, but I understand there are 40,000 bikes at over 2100 stations.
As the bikes are mostly free I imagine the city pays for almost all the costs of the system. While the bikes all carried advertisements we noticed that a large percentage of them were from the city government and only a small percentage had advertising from commercial companies, and while most bike stations did carry billboard advertising it seems unlikely that this would cover the costs of such an extensive system with so much infrastructure and staff.
The bicycles themselves are quite basic off the shelf single speed low step-over city bikes with a front basket, they have old fashioned front lever arch brakes and hub brakes on the back which worked on all the bikes I tried. Overall they seem fairly sturdy and easy to ride, and most bikes are in quite good working order. There are enough bikes so that if one does break you just return it to the nearest bike station, report it broken and swap for working bike.
As a father of a young child, one aspect I really like is that some of the bikes have baby seats, perhaps too small if you had to carry a baby around looking for one, as you need to check a few stations to find one.
All bikes have integrated locks which work well, and while b ike theft is rampant in China, I believe the bright red distinctive design, t he 200 RMB deposit and the fact it is a government initiative, will put off most bicycle thieves.
One design flaw is that the saddle height has no adjustability, which means that we often had to rent bikes with low saddles, as quite correctly high saddled bikes are relatively rare. It is of course possible to design a bike with seat height adjustment which cannot be removed, but there is a cost implication, and when multiplied by tens of thousands of
bikes this might not be worthwhile, as in my opinion the sheer quantity of bikes and the excellent coverage of stations more than compensates.
The stations on average park about a dozen bikes, and in the 36 hours in the city we only found one station which had no bikes left to rent, which was in the ‘new’ centre of town beside the busiest department store, where the car parking is most expensive, suggesting to me that people will ride rather than drive if parking prices were raised.
The public bike usage split between tourists and local residents is about one in ten, although during holiday season there appeared to be as many tourists riding them as locals. I noticed at one or two of the manned stations out of the city centre that some normal bikes used the space for parking, which seems like an initiative that should be encouraged, as while ten years ago it was possible to find a manned bike parking zone at almost all major shopping areas throughout China, these have now all but disappeared, consequently bike theft is a problem.
Hangzhou’s bicycle lanes
The bike lane network is extensive and overall excellent. The wide segregated lanes are well used by both push-bikes and powered two wheelers. I was cycling with a friend’s family, including his ten year old daughter, so I was hyper aware of safety issues.
Using London as a cycling safety yardstick, Hangzhou is miles better, but there are some things that could be improved, I found that outside of the city centre the bike lanes were also used for car parking, which often forces bikes onto the already too narrow pavements. On narrower roads or at traffic bottlenecks the bike lanes are no longer segregated and only marked by a white line, which taxi drivers and other speeding motorists seem to think that is an over-or under-taking lane.
The biggest safety concern is at junction crossings, which have no bike lane markings and although major junctions have phased lights for right turns and straight, cyclists still have to be aware of right turning traffic, both from the direction which you are travelling and also from the right as right turns on a standard red signal are permitted in China. Clear bicycle lane markings across junctions, such as the solid blue markings in Copenhagen, would help establish a sense of priority for cyclists, as even in Hangzhou where driver behaviour is overall excellent, China’s roads seem to work on the principle of ‘I’m bigger than you, so get out of my way’. For a London cyclist used to aggressively battling his way through thick traffic on his way to work this does not represent a problem, but it felt like a threatening place for your ten year old child.
Bike rider survey
Without access to any official figures at the time, it was difficult to assess the impact of the bikes on traffic congestion, which is an issue for all of Hangzhou. A completely unscientific survey of clothing of users suggested that outside the obvious tourist areas the majority of people using bikes do not appear to be from the Chinese car owning class. Figures from reports back this up, as mode shift has been largely from public transport, so the scheme has not significantly reduced car use, however there may be some effect on slowing the rush towards car ownership
The bikes appear well used, but not excessively so, but since my visit was in late January, temperatures were hovering close to zero, and with freezing winds sweeping in off the lake, I would imagine that usage during this season would be at its lowest, especially as the students and low income workers would all have returned home for Chinese New Year.
While the city transport system is excellent, relatively simple things to improve would be to increase the number of outlets to buy the cycling smart cards and provide better maps and information on the bus network, however the more difficult problems are pedestrian and cyclist safety.
Once I left, my friend returned his cycle system cards and reclaimed his deposit, and reverted to driving everywhere, despite the parking charges and congestion. For him, the safety problems presented by narrow pavements, lack of safe crossings or cycling facilities were reason enough to drive even the shortest distance, and with freezing temperatures and a ten year old daughter to look after I cannot fault him as this is a sensible choice.
Hangzhou is better than most places for NMT safety, both in China and abroad, but much remains to be done. There is no simple solution, but in general reducing motor vehicle speeds through traffic calming, which due to the existing congestion would likely have little or no impact on journey times, driver education through promotional campaigns to look out for pedestrians and cyclists, especially around schools and giving priority and visibility to vulnerable modes at junctions through clearly marked cycle lanes would in my opinion be a good place to start.
Almost all Chinese cities have high population densities, which while car ownership remains relatively low by European or American standards, in these circumstances congestion is an increasingly problematic issue, and in this respect Hangzhou is no different.
The only solution other than to allow virtual gridlock, is to encourage people to only drive when necessary. In building the world’s biggest public use bicycle scheme, providing BRT, and charging for parking in the city centre, Hangzhou is certainly providing an attractive alternative.
In order to be more effective I would recommend using mobility management techniques to promote cycling, especially to existing car users. The first step would be to gather data through surveys to ascertain which journeys could be made by alternatives, which group of car users would be most likely to shift, and what are the perceived barriers. Then develop a promotional campaign directed specifically at this group.
One common problem in developing countries is that cycling and bus use is perceived as low status, so a marketing campaign aimed at the local population to present cycling as a stylish, environmentally friendly, convenient, healthy and just plain sensible choice, through billboard advertisements, the media and events would help correct this.
Hangzhou is a wonderful city, with a world-class public share bicycle system, as cities around China and the world are looking to introduce their own systems, this would surely be the ideal time to show the world what Hangzhou has achieved. Hosting an international exhibition and conference on shared bike systems would achieve this and also offer the chance for Hangzhou’s planners to learn from the experience of other cities and help Hangzhou to promote itself as a tourist destination. I for one can certainly recommend it as a great place to visit.
In the last year I have been to many of the major cities in China; Zhuhai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Shanghai, Beijing, Xiamen and now Hangzhou. Hangzhou has the best environment for cycling of all of these, although Beijing is close behind. The bus system is also good, and overall it gives the impression of a modern city with a high quality of life. On the evidence of this short visit, I would rate it as one of China’s most liveable cities.
About the author:
Rory McMullan, Sustainable Transport activist, China/UK:
Rory moved from his job at PTRC in London to the Far East in 2010 to assist with the organisation of The First World Share/Transport Conference. He is based in Zhuhai in Guangdong China. His objective for being in China is to protect bicycle use and culture in the country, promote Mobility Management techniques to Chinese planners and he also hopes to organise the 2nd World Share/Transport Conference in China in 2011. He currently works as the Project Director for sustainable transport consultancy ITP China and is developing a bike made out of bamboo.
Postscript: Chinese New Year holidays are over, and I am back in another very liveable city, Zhuhai. Reflecting on my visit to Hangzhou one thing that made it so very enjoyable was the noticeable politeness of the people, their smiles and willingness to help. Of course everyone is in a good mood at the beginning of a holiday, but it does make me wonder how close a connection there is between civility and a well designed urban realm.