Mapping Cycling in China’s Cities (An open collaborative project)

This article by Rory McMullan, who is working on a long-term program to do what is needed to retain cycling as a serious transportation option in medium and smaller Chinese cities, started with a call for ideas to one of World Streets Facebook Focus Groups – the World City Bike Forum. Comments on this working paper, which builds on some of these contributions, are welcome and will be shared with all who wish to join in.

Mapping Cycling in China’s Cities

– A journey of a billion cyclists begins with a simple map –

– Rory McMullan, Zhuhai, China

To a man with a hammer all problems look like nails

As World Streets readers are often reminded, great cities are complex living organisms. But in the world of urban mobility, and indeed in the bicycle community, people tend to wield their own favourite hammer, from new mode Public Bike Systems to expanded cycle lane networks, each certain that theirs holds the potential to strike the magic blow to solve the transport issues of almost every city.

I arrived in China at the backend of last year with a mission to raise the status of cycling, which I saw as ‘the’ problem, and opportunity, for many of the cities here.

Was I right, or had I imbibed a little too much of the fine wine of European style Mobility Management? Were concepts, such as organising events, marketing and promotion of new mobility ideas, my own personal hammer searching blindly for a nail to hit?

On reflection, under the guidance and tutelage of the editor of this journal, I have confirmed my belief that marketing good ideas is of acute importance, but perhaps not the place to commence along the critical path towards creating safe cycling cities.

That crucial first step is, I believe, the creation of a simple map for cyclists.

Some observations on city cycling in China

Don’t be fooled by everything you read and see about transport in Beijing, Shanghai and China’s other mega cities. The situation that can be observed in many small and medium sized Chinese cities, and the suburbs of the mega cities, today is one of actually still relatively low levels of private car use, high levels of public transport use, comparatively good cycling infrastructure, and high but fairly rapidly declining levels of cycling.

It’s a complicated situation. While cycling may be losing ground in terms of numbers of trips, cycling projects are on the way to becoming fashionable.

Here in Zhuhai for example we have the beautiful ‘Green Way’ cycle path running along the coast; Public Bicycle Systems are a new ‘must’ for cities all over China, and scores of Chinese cities take part in Car Free Day’s activities.

All this, and yet I am told by bicycle industry insiders that national sales of low priced bicycles, which are usually used for everyday cycling for transport, are declining by as much as 10% year on year. This I believe indicates that cycling for transport is declining at a similarly quick rate.

Given that cycling is just about the most sustainable transport option that exists, (along with walking of course), this is disturbing.

There are numerous reasons for this decline, and status is one, as are factors such as theft, safety, weather conditions, comfort and increasing trip distances due to sprawl. But there is more to it than that.

Objective: “More people cycling, more safely, more often”

Followers of this journal will need no introduction to the benefits to cities that Cycling England’s famous motto will imbue; cycling as a means of transport is efficient in terms of urban space, energy, noise, pollution and safety, and cycling is generally recognised as a component in increasing the health and happiness of citizens.

All of the above benefits can be presented almost like for like as the flip sides of the problems created by China’s infamous mega motorisation and consequent decline in cycling for everyday city transportation.

Quick, someone do something! Yes, but who and what?

The cities themselves are the ones with the ability to change.

Operational responsibility and leadership must come from the city government.

The key stakeholders in city life must be encouraged to get behind the scheme; businesses, police, schools, and the media. Crucially, the project should also enjoy broad public support.
The invaluable contribution from the international New Mobility community is certainly not lecturing about the dangers of motorisation, for it is rare thing for a city to learn from another’s mistakes. We only learn from our own.

Our contribution must therefore be positive, providing examples of success, the role of walking and cycling in place-making, of great places to live and travel around and the expertise and experience of how these gains were achieved.

The essential first step is to convince just one city leader in China to embark on a demonstration project. Success breeds success, so it would be hoped that more cities will follow.

The door of opportunity for cycling projects is wide open in today’s China.

The most recent and 12th Chinese national 5-year plan included the following objectives:

– Accommodating a rapidly urbanizing population
– Achieving inclusiveness and equal opportunity.
– Assuming international responsibility for stability, growth, and sustainability, including tackling climate change.

Creating cycle friendly cities seems to fit perfectly with these objectives.

They are of course cherry-picked from a much wider set, but what comes across to this observer, from these and other government announcements, is a shift of emphasis from narrow GDP growth as the accumulation of wealth, towards improving quality of life for all.

In this regard it is my view that a message everyone should hear more often, is that bicycling and walking are enjoyable. Moderate exercise from cycling to work makes us healthy and happy, (and for the GDP enthusiasts more productive when we get there).

I get the impression that most people here know that cycling is good for the planet due to the CO2 saved, but that there is less awareness of the benefits the city environment in reduced local pollution and congestion.

And as it is the personal benefits in terms of health, finance and convenience, that are often the best motivation to cycle, these could be given more emphasis.

We have still to answer the crunch question of how to get past the well guarded door that protects the people with the power to make a difference.

I think that, as Laozi reputedly said, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.

Well ours is – Mapping the cycle facilities.

Why start with a map?

This first step is critical.

It must be relatively quick, low cost and have a defined output.

It must be very easy for leaders of a city government to understand, have limited and clear objectives and make an effective contribution.

It must be a project that does not present any perceived risk of failure for a city leader, while providing a platform for the leader and the city to garner praise, plaudits and increased profile.
Ideally it should provide a vehicle to acquire the support and contribution from all the key stakeholders; private sector businesses, sponsors, media, departments within the city government, and the citizens themselves.

Considering all the options, a critical and relatively easy and low cost, thing to start with is to map the cycle network.

What needs to be considered in developing a map?

1. Defining the cycle routes

The most fundamental feature of a cycle map is presenting the cycle routes around the city.
This is at once very simple and quite complex.

In its most basic form, a cycle map of a Chinese city could list the segregated lanes which still run along the sides of many of the boulevards in many cities, by adding in quiet back streets that tend to cater for large numbers of cyclists, a fairly comprehensive network can be developed fairly quickly.

Although of course, scratch the surface and a number of issues come to light.

A survey of all the routes and some sort of classification system would still be required, because;

Not all cycle lanes are created equal – some are state of the art, wide, two way thoroughfares which allow easy overtaking for cyclists travelling at speed and slow leisurely cycling, while others are just lines painted on the side of roads with fast moving traffic, and some are really just busy pavements which cyclists are directed to use, making for extremely slow progress on a bike.

The side roads also vary tremendously in traffic volume and speed.

And even the best designed cycle lanes can end at junctions which are difficult and dangerous to negotiate and therefore best avoided, which would require careful route planning.

Thus there needs to be some form of colour coding according to route type, necessitating surveys and planning even for a cycle map in its most basic form.

There are many other route classification options that can be included from safety to pollution, but while useful these could potentially distract us from our objective.

The target is to encourage cycling, and not produce the most technically perfect cycling map, and consideration of budget and speed of delivery must therefore be kept very much in mind.
Therefore, a simple, clear and high quality cycling map for the city, would probably offer a better initial strategy than adopting an overly complex and comprehensive approach.

2. Listing other information

The benefits of highlighting cycle friendly places:

The cycle route is only one part of the mapping puzzle; people who refer to a map tend to be going somewhere, so every map must list common destinations.

When travelling by bicycle, facilities available to cyclists may influence a person’s decision as to the best route to take, and best destination for the service or goods they need.

Therefore listing items such as safe cycle parking facilities, bicycle shops, places offering cycle hire, and cycle repair is important.

This strand to the mapping project should certainly not be overlooked, as it is one which serves the core aim of promoting cycling in cities.

Simply by offering to survey and map shops, hotels and cafes which cater for cyclists, businesses have an incentive to provide better cycling facilities.

In my experience most businesses in China think primarily about car parking, or possibly public transport access, presumably with the assumption that cyclists have low income. Since the biggest growth segment of the bicycle market in China is for high end bikes, this is not necessarily true.

I have been told by a number of quite well to do Chinese friends who have expensive bicycles that they were unable to cycle to the pub / restaurant etc, because there is nowhere safe to leave their bikes.

Approaching this issue like an advertising sales project, informing businesses that a listing on the map offers an opportunity to attract a growing high income demographic, and that listing is free for any business that offers safe secure bicycle parking, would be a good strategy to adopt.

Any success in this area is very beneficial, as wealthy individuals actually riding for transport will do more for the image of cycling than an advertising campaign.

3. Distribution

Getting the map into the hands, and screens, of cyclists and non-cyclists is a crucial part of the process.

The map must be free. It must be available at as many outlets as possible.

As this is a project led by the city, then public sector organisations can provide the core distribution network:

Schools, hospitals, tourist information, government departments, and transport hubs such as bus stations, airports and harbours.

A strategy to get workplaces, universities, restaurants, hotels, cycle shops and the media to distribute and promote the map, is to include them in the mapping process and listing them on the map itself.

4. The Launch

The launch of the map is an opportunity to create awareness of the project with the general public, and thank all the stakeholders who helped.

There are many options, a car free day festival, a ride along some of the key cycle routes listed on the map which is led by the mayor and local celebrities, of even a Ciclovía where key routes around the city are closed to traffic for a morning to allow safe cycling.

The launch should take into account what the city government and other stakeholders in the project feel will be most effective.

It should be a major celebration, and a media friendly event.

The collaborative process

Local Steering group
A steering group of representatives from some of the key stakeholders would be an ideal method to gather thoughts and experience and provide these key organisations and individuals a role in building the map.

Meetings should be between 3 and 6 times a year, the number of representatives should not exceed 20 individuals.

The project management team updates the steering group on progress who in turn contribute their ideas and comments.

Their support in helping solve any issue can also be requested at these meetings.

The International Advisory team

As part of the project an advisory team of international experts in mapping will be created.
This team will meet (virtually, online) each six months to review its use, accuracy and potential new developments, and propose any changes that need to be made.

# # #

Post Scriptum. The collaborative process explained
For the purposes of this first paper on cycling strategies for Chinese cities, we took contact through the ‘World City Bike’ group.
We asked the following questions:

1. What is the best cycling map you have ever done or seen? (With reference and URL if available.)

2. Once you create your cycling map what is the next step?

3. Have you done or considered working with or using in parallel with Open Street Map and/or Google Maps.

From this request, we received over twenty responses, some very detailed, some brief, some personal, some offering opinions others practicalities. From this we have been able to collect quite a comprehensive list of examples from around the world.

Thank-you to the following people who contributed ideas and refernces to this article:

Andrew Curran, Canada
Andrew M Wheeldon, South Africa
Barbara Cuthbert , New Zealand
Benoit Beroud, France
Eric Callé, France
Ezra Goldman, Denmark/USA
Gail Jennings, South Africa
Gil Penalosa, Colombia
Ian Fidies, Sweden
Jane Voodilon, China
Jena Niquidet, Canada
Josip Rotar, Slovenia
K i r s t e n S h o u l e r, New Zealand
Ludo Campbell-Reid, New Zealand
Mike Lydon, USA
Morten Lange, Iceland
Peter Smith, USA
Randy Neufeld, USA
Richard Layman, USA
Steve Southall, New Zealand
Todd Edelman, Germany
Zvi Leve, Canada

We shall also be inviting their comments on this article.

Examples from abroad:,64.1345528&end=-21.936633,64.1476236&pref=BicycleRoute&lang=en&noMotorways=false&noTollways=false

# # #

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.


2 thoughts on “Mapping Cycling in China’s Cities (An open collaborative project)

  1. Pingback: Pattern Cities » Archive » Is Asia Cycling Backwards?

  2. The best thing about OpenStreetMap is you can have many collaborators updating the database and the rendering is up to you. You can merge it into a map you already have for instance. I’ve mapped many bike ways in NYC.


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