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Shanghai's Cycling Culture Hangs in the Balance, but it's Not Just Because of the Motor Car

I was fortunate enough to visit Shanghai recently.  It's an energetic and complex mega-city (24 million residents, and counting) where modernity is meeting the old ways of Chinese living.  I'd heard before how this former city of bicycles had become enthralled to the motor car, but I hadn't expected the very fabric of the city itself to contribute to the decline in cycle culture.

Cycling rates have decreased in Shanghai in recent years, and the same problem can be seen all over China.  In decades past China was called the "Kingdom of the Bicycle" where massive populations were moved around by massive amounts of bikes.  As recently as 1998 some 63% of all journeys in the city of Jinan were made by bicycle.  By 2011 that figure had fallen to 10%.  In Shanghai, cycling rates fell by 60% over the same period.  These sobering figures are from the World Bank, who are rarely breathless about this sort of thing.

I flew to Shanghai on a Chinese airline.  Every commercial on the entertainment package - without exception - was for a private car.  It was the same in the in-flight magazine.  Cars that gave you feelings of freedom, cars that helped you keep your family safe, cars that would help you reconnect with your kids after a busy day at the office, cars that would help you find (and keep) a girlfriend.  I was fully prepared to witness the reality of the idea that a rise in private car ownership had directly contributed to the decline in cycling rates.  What I discovered was something rather different.


On the streets of Shanghai, signs of an impressive-by-UK-standards cycling rate can still be seen everywhere.  There are manned bike parks outside shopping malls, deliveries of goods of every shape and size being made by bicycle, labourers plying for work from one construction site to another using bikes to get around.  Kids being collected by grandparents from school by bike, and even bottles of gas being delivered on bicycles through the tightly packed streets of the Shikumen Longtang residences; a style of back-to-back row housing famous in Shanghai.  But all the cyclists I saw were just a small percent compared to what you would have found just a few years ago.  Where have all the cyclists gone?


To say that Chinese cities are changing at breakneck speed almost seems like an understatement.  We all know the stories of entire towns and districts being built in the time it would take for us to raise a few houses.  Change builds quickly, and sweeps aside everything in its path.  Just twenty years ago Shanghai did not have a single metro line. Now it has 14, carrying roughly 6 million passengers per day.  Passengers are whisked to the airport at 430kph on a new maglev train.  The 632 metre high Shanghai Tower is the tallest building in Asia - the second tallest in the world - and popped up in just 5 years. The city has an active car ownership restraint programme, auctioning number plates to deliberately inflate their value, but this did not stop the number of cars owned in the city increasing by an additional million in just 5 years between 2005 and 2010 to 3.1 million.  In 2010, when asked if she'd like to go on a romantic bike ride, dating show contestant Ma Nuo caused an uproar responding, "I'd rather cry in the back of a BMW than smile on a bicycle." (Source: The Atlantic)


All across Shanghai densely packed Longtang housing is being cleared to make way for wider roads, shopping malls and high rise housing, each new tower fenced off from the next. In these new developments the subjective experience for pedestrians and cyclists is greatly diminished with bike lanes ripped out and new roads built without any sidewalk.  To be clear, much of the old housing is cramped, dark and with only very basic sanitation, with many people living together in conditions we would consider positively Victorian.  But on the streets there is a palpable sense of social cohesion with people sitting out the front of their homes, talking to neighbours, trading with passers by and only ever a short bicycle ride away from commerce, education or parks.  Door-to-door traders ply their wares, children play in the lanes, old people gather around tables for tea or to enjoy card games, and all in a predominantly car free environment.

Traditional Longtang housing is being demolished all across the city to be replaced with high rise residential towers.

As these neighbourhoods are cleared and replaced with high rise residential towers (at great profit for the people to who the formerly unowned land has been assigned), the residents who move in to the new units gain light, air, electricity and private bathrooms.  But down on the ground they loose a richly patterned street life that was sustained by the shape of the city and the types of building in it, which in turn supported high cycling rates.   Instead, people travel the greater distances presented by their new homes on the burgeoning transit system, or in cars.  As more people travel in this way, so there are fewer cyclists, and space for cyclists, and so conditions deteriorate further and the decline continues.

New developments create poor amenity for both walkers and cyclists.

The idea that massive increases in private car ownership rates have led to the demise of the bicycle in China is too readily accepted by Western commentators.  We know, from the experience of successful cycling countries such as the Netherlands where there are both high cycle and car ownership rates, that the two can live together simultaneously.  The decline of the bicycle in China is more complex than at first it seems.  The World Bank says; "Conditions for both pedestrians and cyclists have been deteriorating across Chinese cities in the last few years. This is due to a combination of factors, including the lack of policies prioritising these users, cities sacrificing space for non-motorised traffic to be used for motorised traffic, the spatial growth of cities resulting in longer trips, and specific difficulties related to the big arterial roads of a typical Chinese city."

"You don't know what you've got till it's gone"

In short, as Shanghai strives to update itself, it risks destroying its cycling culture.  Not because some people can now afford a car or two, but because the form of the city itself is changing the way people travel.  In high towers residents are no longer able to make short trips to neighbours by bike, whilst below ground the metro waits to speed Shanghainese further and faster.  At street level the conditions for cycling are no longer pleasant or efficient enough to convince as many people to ride a bike as once was the case.  It's a cliche to quote Joni Mitchell singing "You don't know what you've got till it's gone", but for all its modern style and progress, in the case of Shanghai I'm inclined to agree.