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Bicycle Transportation In Asia





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Paradise Lost:
The Decline of Bicycle Transportation In Asia

by John Hilary (London Cyclist)
Copyright © 1997 International Bicycle Fund. All rights reserved.

Ten years ago, I went to live in heaven: a city of six million cyclists and barely a couple of thousand cars. A city with cycle lanes as wide as Oxford Street and attended bike parks on every other corner. A city where every consumer durable – fridge, washing machine, even three piece suit – was delivered by pedal power, and where whole sidewalks were given over to puncture repair stalls. I rubbed my eyes, bought my second-hand Flying Pigeon and joined the happy throng.

Today, that same city is choking on a noxious cocktail of exhaust fumes familiar to urban dwellers the world over. (In fact, its streets now have "oxygen bars" where citizens can stop off and rent an oxygen mask for a few minutes to help them on their way.) The bikes are still there, but the presence of a million cars, trucks, scooters and taxis has jammed the city and turned them into second-class road users. And so, the big question: why has Beijing given up a transport system that Londoners would give their back brakes for, and within the space of decade replaced it with an all-too-familiar nightmare?

Beijing is just one example. Throughout Asia, sustainable transport cultures are being replaced by more "modern" forms of traffic, with the same mounting air and noise pollution and horrific accident rates. Cities, such as Jakarta and Bangkok, have experienced problems for many years – gridlock in the latter has led some corporate executives to have their cars fitted with fax machines and portable latrines. Others can look back on their very recent past for examples of a cleaner, safer urban environ-ment – and yet they still press on towards the opposite. Why?

The central problem is that while the economies of Asia develop – many at breakneck speed – the development model being followed is one which ranks a city’s environmental health low on its list of priorities. More precisely, certain elements of the urban landscape indicate progress, others an unwanted past. Motorized transport falls into the former category: being able to afford a car, a taxi ride or – particularly in the Asian context – a motor scooter is a critical indicator of personal prosperity.

For a city, simply multiply this personal aspiration by a factor of several hundred thousand and you have the picture of a development "success story". Nor is this idle vanity: the cities of Asia know that they have to put out the right signals if they want to pull in foreign investment. A "buzzing" metropolis is deemed preferable to one tinkling with bicycle bells. Development models which offer both environment and economic health are ignored.

Back at street level, this imperative to meet foreign ideals is seen most graphically in cities such as Dhaka, where cycle rickshaws have been banned from using the main thoroughfares from the airport into the city so that the elite can speed in more quickly in their limousines. A quarter of a million people still make a living from pedaling rickshaws in Dhaka; the effects of the ban on them remain to be seen. Similar restrictions have been placed in Delhi, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, to name a few.

But the picture is not entirely one of gloom. The local authorities in many Asian cities show more commitment to their environment than their counterparts in the industrialized world. Several municipal councils have put into effect a range of traffic management systems, including banning cars with certain number plates on certain days (e.g. Manila’s Vehicular Volume Reduction Program, which began last summer); investing large sums in public transport (e.g. the tube system in south China’s Guangshou); and restricting the number of licenses available for motor vehicles, particularly scooters (as in many Chinese cities).

Last year, Vietnam’s central authorities announced new vehicle tests for exhaust emissions, and in a parallel campaign against noise pollution, banned the use of horns after 8pm.

Conspicuously absent from all these schemes, however, is the bicycle – which, after all, formed the hub of the sustainable transport systems of the past. Shanghai, for example, has done as much as any city to control its traffic problem, this year introducing emission controls on all vehicles and a total ban on further licenses for motor scooters (cars are already discouraged, with license plates costing the equivalent of 10 years’ salary for most Chinese people). Despite these moves, the city still plans to ban cyclists from its main streets, seeing them as part of the problem rather than the solution. For the deputy mayor of Shanghai, "the bicycle is just a reminder of past poverty."

While many municipal authorities across Asia now spurn the bicycle, millions of urban Asians continue to use it all the same, and are prepared to fight for its place. When the Mayor of Guangshou tried to ban cycles from 11 of the city’s main streets public outcry was so great that he had to scrap the idea. In congested Jakarta, cyclists have mounted their own Critical Mass rides in a campaign for better facilities.

Perhaps the best example of a cycling campaign in Asia can be found in Bangkok. Five years ago, Dr. Thongchai and Kasama Pansawad, set up the Thailand Cycling Club and a campaign for cycle lanes. Since then, they have been joined by other Bangkok cyclists, and last summer hundreds held their own Critical Mass ride to deliver a petition for better facilities to City Hall.

This may be part of a trend of environmental activism in Bangkok: Bhichit Rattakul, an independent candidate, generally regarded as an outsider, was elected governor of the city last summer on an environmental ticket – his election manifesto: A pledge to introduce bike lanes, tram service and pollution controls. He will have his work cut out: a recent study of 330 dead dogs revealed that most had died from air pollution.

Asia’s cities are under immense strain from the traffic which their economic success has generated. The bicycle may be associated with the past, but it is also the perfect answer for the future; pride in its very real achievements should challenge the dominant model of what it means to "look good". In the words of one punter, sweating it out in a summer gridlock in Seoul: "When you’re stuck in a traffic jam, knowledge that the gross domestic product has just risen by 2 per cent isn’t much consolation.".

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