Hangzhou – The view from the saddle of a shared bike of China’s most liveable city

Rory McMullan reports from the streets of Hangzhou:
Chinese New Year is thought to be the biggest movement of people on earth as millions of people leave the cities to return home to celebrate the passing of the lunar new year with their families. With most people headed for their family home, this is the low season for hotels, so I decided to take the opportunity to visit one of the most famous tourist cities in China, Hangzhou, to test their public shared bicycle system which is by some accounts now the world’s largest.

Hangzhou has a lot going for it; foremost the spectacular West Lake which over the centuries has been increased in size by successive emperors and is bounded by mountains on one side and the city on the other, Hangzhou is also home to Zhizhang University, one of China’s finest, while commercially it hosts Alibaba, the website of choice for over 1 million Chinese manufacturers to market their services domestically and internationally. This is not a city which is targeting heavy industry or low cost manufacturing, the transport system reflects a city government which has invested in planning, and there is a sense of order to the traffic flows, distinct from the chaos that reins in so many other places.

Few places have been more affected by China’s property boom; Hangzhou has amongst the highest property prices in China, and the developers look to 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 identical houses for the rich.

We had come into the town from Anhui Province 300 kilometres to the west, along one of the many motorways which within a matter of a few years have been built from scratch to criss-cross this enormous country. It’s hard not to be impressed by these massive engineering projects. Southern China has a rugged mountainous landscape featuring wide river valleys. These monumental thousand mile constructions boast dozens of tunnels punched through mountains and scores of bridges that each span several kilometres. The journey from Huangshan in Anhui, which once took almost a full day along winding mountain roads, or 14 hours by train, now takes about three hours by coach or car. There is little doubt that this infrastructure has improved the connectivity of the country.

The motorway network is far from free, and tolls for a private car usually exceed the cost of a bus or train ticket, so outside of the big cities the motorways are almost empty save for expensive new cars, along with a few coaches and trucks. It is easy to see why the growing middle classes see the automobile as their ticket to ‘the good life’, this is a golden age of motoring for the wealthy Chinese.

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 is therefore seen as a potential template for others to follow, which makes their experiment with public shared bikes so interesting to study.

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, the original old centre of town is a bustling place, with alley ways between shortish blocks that throb with life from small shops and stalls. It still has relatively narrow streets with one or two lanes of traffic in each direction, rather than 3, 4 or 5 lanes elsewhere, it suffers from traffic congestion, but this at least keeps the cars from going too quickly. The wide streets in the new town and the traffic regulations which allow right turns on red signals may make crossing the road a virtual death trap, but the wide roads do allow for a segregated bicycle lane network, while the sheer density of population although lower than some places, still means there are plenty of shops and restaurants on both sides of the road. Overall the transport system has managed to compliment, rather than detract from the liveability of the city.

Of course the jewel in the crown of the transport system are the public shared bikes, the network of bike stations really is quite impressive spread liberally throughout Hangzhou every 200 – 300 meters on a ten kilometre diameter.

Having arrived late that evening, 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 an hour, with most public roads, pavements and alleyways seemingly manned by old aged pensioners who act as parking attendants.

The hotel was still within the bike network, so when I awoke in the morning and strolled out of my hotel to one of the hundreds of bike stations less than 100m away, 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.

Fortunately the bus network is good too, with regular buses along most routes. 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.

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.

Once I got to the central bike station, I handed over my passport for them to take the details, gave them my mobile number and purchased my card for 300 RMB of which 200RMB is a deposit. The attendant explained how to use the bikes, I managed to get a map marking all the bike stations (free but very scarce), some blue which are fully automatic and operate between 8am – 9pm and ones marked in red are manned 24-hour ones mostly positioned at key junctions throughout the network. The manned stations also act like mini-tourist information offices and have a collection of brochures about things to do in the city.

Once I had a card the system is very quick and easy, just rest the card on the sensor for 5 seconds and the bike unlocks, and do in reverse to return the bike, slot the bike back into the stand and rest the card on the sensor for five seconds to lock the bike. There is a computer system at each station where it is possible to check how much credit you have on your card and also whether the system has registered that you have returned the bike. 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 with the bikes mostly free I imagine the city pays for almost all the costs of the system. Most bikes carried advertisements from the city and only a small percentage had advertising from commercial companies, although 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 single speed low stand-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 about 2% of the bikes have baby seats, you can’t find one at every stop but there are plenty around. They have integrated locks which work well, and while bike theft is rampant in China, I believe the bright red distinctive design, the 200RMB 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, and then ride to the next station to swap for a bike that fits. It is possible to design a bike with seat height adjustment which cannot be removed, but there is a cost implication, and when multiplied by ten 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. I was told by one of the bike system’s employees that the bike usage split between tourists and local residents is about 50/50. 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 bike theft is a problem.

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 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 most major junctions have phased lights for right turns and straight, cyclists still have to be aware of right turning traffic in some places, 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 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 a ten year old.

Without access to any official figures it is 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 to me suggests that outside the obvious tourist areas, that the majority of people using bikes do not appear to be from the Chinese car owning class. If this is true, then the scheme has not achieved large modal shift, 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.

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. Issues such as number of outlets to buy the cycling smart cards, more promotion to raise the status of cycling, perhaps through employers to staff, providing better maps and information on the bus network can be easily addresses, however the major and more difficult problem is pedestrian and cyclist safety. Hangzhou is better than most places for NMT safety, both in China and abroad, but much remains to be done. 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 lack of pavements, safe crossings or cycling facilities are 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.

In conclusion, Hangzhou has an excellent public share bicycle system, and for men, some women and most young people cycling around the inner city presents a cheap, fast and relatively hassle free form of transport. Staying just 36 hours in the city it is difficult to give any firm recommendations on how to improve the system, although I would suggest concentrating on making junctions safer for cyclists, and looking at marketing the system to the local population as a stylish, environmentally friendly and just plain sensible choice, to try to encourage car users to give it a go. I would also recommend that Hangzhou market their amazing vision in developing the world’s largest public bike system to cities around China, and the world, perhaps through hosting a global conference about shared bicycles, perhaps combined with a Car Free day event for the general public.

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About the author:

Rory McMullan, Sustainable Transport activist, China/UK:   Rory is a sustainable transport consultant and activist, who provides training and advice to professionals working in the workplace travel plan and travel behavior change fields. Presently working in China, he has served on the steering committee for several voluntary organizations including; Local Government Technical Advisors Group Transport Committee, Carfree UK, and is European Mobility Week Coordinator for the UK. Previously he worked in marketing roles in the bicycle business, and was based in Taiwan, global home of the bicycle industry, for seven years, where he also organized car free events. Rory sees sharing as a common element of many sustainable travel campaigns, be it information, space, or vehicles

One thought on “Hangzhou – The view from the saddle of a shared bike of China’s most liveable city

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Hangzhou – The view from the saddle of a shared bike of China’s most liveable city « Network Dispatches -- Topsy.com

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