One of the first things that spring to mind when people think of China is the use of bicycles. When I first visited Beijing in 2004 (10 years ago!) I had stayed with my friend David whose mode of transport was mostly foot or bike. I distinctly remember sitting on his bike rack as he pedaled away on the busy streets of Beijing. As we emailed recently he had said that we, “experienced the last of the golden age” of the bicycle in China. Since the early 2000’s, or really you could argue since the mid 90’s the number of automobiles on the streets of China has been increasing by leaps and bounds. This year the government announced it will reduce the number of aging vehicles in China by about 6 million and about 350,000 in Beijing. While this represents a step towards better air quality the traffic will likely still be horrific as new cars hit the road. Considering the amount of time spent in a car traveling or finding a parking space would be a welcome addition as it reduces traveling times and is good for the environment as less driving is being done.
While all this has been a boon to the Chinese economy and wonderful in many ways for the Chinese people there are also concerns of environmental pollution and not everyone can afford to purchase a car. Speaking with a Chinese friend the other day he told me that he had bought a car in Shanghai where he lived and the cost of getting the license plate for the carewas nearly the price of the car itself. Shanghai has opted to price out consumers and therefore to reduce congestion by limiting the use of cars to more wealthy citizens. Beijing has taken a different path. Instead of raising the price of the plates here the system is by lottery. From what I’ve been told its very hard to get one. I have had people tell me its about a 2% chance, and some people told me it takes 10 years or more to get one. In either case, its not easy. In order to get around the restrictions on plates and the steep prices for many people of purchasing a car there have been efforts to find alternatives.
The metro in Beijing is dirt cheap and the buses and subways are plentiful, but just like in the US people want to the freedom to have their own mode of transport. Many have come up with what I think is a brilliant solution. Electric trikes were my first exposure to this when we lived in Shanghai. Silent and fast many people used these to get around even during the winters and many of the streets in the newer areas of Shanghai were wide with specialized lanes for bike or scooter traffic. At many of the subway stations drivers with trikes would wait for those alighting to ask for a ride for a few blocks. In Beijing I was surprised to see that this has evolved into what I can only describe as miniature cars. There are many different types, but these are all electric relying on a battery to run. Most people either plug into central spots or they haul their battery up to their apartments to re-charge them. I’m fascinated with this option as the cars seat 3-4 people (small Asian people) have head lights, blinkers, windshield wipers, heaters, the works! I really want to buy one just for the novelty, but I can’t justify the expense. Even though these cars are designed to fill the gap for those who desire an auto but can’t afford them they still run 500-3000USD depending on the size and age. For now I will just have to fawn from afar and hope to get a ride from time to time.