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'Kingdom of bicycles' under 'Tyranny of cars'
Last Updated(Beijing Time):2007-09-21 15:27
Some of China's major cities are going to honor "car-free day" tomorrow.

In the minds of many, setting aside a car-free day marks another step in the much-vaunted "international alignment" as this practice originated in France and 1,322 cities around the world have joined the effort.

But it would be more worthwhile for policy-makers to spend the day pondering why, while such Western cities as Paris are aspiring to the title of "City of bikes," China is shedding its former image as "Kingdom of bicycles."

Until we get clear on this score, we should be prepared to receive more contradictory policy signals and accept that real improvement is hopeless.

What prompted our policy makers to adopt a pro-auto attitude at the expense of cyclists and pedestrians is, of course, an unqualified admiration for cars as an efficient, dignified mode of transport.

Car mania

In 20 years they succeeded in turning most big Chinese cities into "Kingdoms of motor vehicles". It is predicted that China will surpass the US as the world's No 1 auto market by 2010.

Bicycles are already prohibited on many major streets in many large cities in China.

It was not that the policy makers lacked enlightened guidance when making their choice. Professor Zheng Yefu made a scathing attack on motor vehicles in an article in the Guangming Daily on August 9, 1994.

He observed that in 1907, a horse-drawn carriage in New York could trot at a speed of 6 km/hour. In 1994, motor vehicles in New York could manage roughly the same speed.

Today in Beijing, cars can achieve an average of 12 kilometers per hour on 11 main roads, a speed roughly comparable to that of bicycles.

But, as is apparent to all, the wisdom of Zheng and such plain facts have failed to enlighten the solid bastion of self-interest.

For one thing, car-making is big business. China is already the battle ground for leading auto manufacturers, who see huge potential both as a manufacturing base and a market.

For example, the number of car per thousand persons in China is about 24, against 300 in Europe, and 765 in the US.

Some interprets this as an incipient crisis, for notwithstanding the modest number, the traffic situation in Beijing and Shanghai suggests that the only cure for the traffic woes is to drastically improve public transport and discourage use of cars.

But GDP-thirsty officials and GM and VW have clearly seen gold in these statistics.

The outcome of the battle between these conflicting visions will be decided by how officials choose to be transported themselves. Unless we stop allowing our public servants to move about in government-provided cars, there is every reason to be pessimistic.

Officials may continue to extol the virtues of public transport, but what can we expect if private or government-provided cars are the preferred means of transport?

According to statistics, in 2004 government procurement of motor vehicles amount to 50 billion yuan (US$6.7 billion). It is expected to hit 70 billion yuan this year.

Official car use is not only a serious source of waste, pollution and corruption, but is also responsible for fostering a snobbish admiration for car-ownership, as symbols of status, dignity, power, privilege and the good life.

This explains why public transport is continually prioritized in policies, while in fact it steadily degenerates.

If teenagers, pregnant women, and senile citizens can survive the ordeal of using public transport in China, why should we spare our public servants who should be held responsible for this horrible predicament?

If they are really eager to learn from the practices in the West, they can learn from mayors of New York and London, who use public transport to get to work.

Otherwise we will continue to see more confusing signals and equivocations, such as the scheduled construction of a parking lot for 7,000 cars in a Metro station in Shanghai's Jiading District. Why not a parking lot for 7,000 bicycles?

Other doable measures include: Imposing huge levies on car use; restoring (recreating) cycle lanes and pedestrian lanes to their past glory.

The situation is in essence a conflict between two forces and only when individual car-riding becomes expensive, snail-like, and stigmatized, can public transport, bicycles and pedestrians hope to win.
Source:Shanghai Daily 
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