Can Bikes Cure China’s Big City Blues?
The name Huilongguan doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but to Beijingers, this sleepy neighborhood on the city’s outskirts encapsulates what’s known in China as “big city illnesses” — the problems now plaguing the country’s urban spaces after 40 years of misguided suburban development, including long commutes, zoning-enforced separation of business and residential areas, and poor walkability.
In 1998, Beijing chose Huilongguan, located on the capital’s periphery, as the site for a new affordable housing project. At the time, Chinese urban planners were still under the spell of Functionalism. A product of 20th century European urban design, Functionalism’s advocates — most famously the Swiss-French architect and planner Le Corbusier — called for a city’s various functions, such as employment and residence, to be delegated to separate zones. During China’s “reform and opening-up” period, Chinese urban planners studied and adopted these ideas wholesale, and the Huilongguan project was designed following this approach. Planners sought to encourage Beijing’s population to relocate away from the city center — and away from the city’s business and commercial areas, which were still downtown or had been moved to different parts of the city.
Today, more than 400,000 people call Huilongguan home. But the lack of employment opportunities in the area has turned it into a typical “bedroom town,” characterized by tidal-like passenger flows, as residents commute to work in the morning and return home in the evening.
By 2010, the disadvantages of the Functionalist approach had become increasingly difficult to ignore. The Shangdi Software Park, which is 3.8 kilometers away from Huilongguan as the crow flies, is home to a number of tech companies that employ Huilongguan residents. During morning and evening rush hours, roughly 11,600 people travel from Huilongguan to Shangdi and back. Traffic jams routinely turn the six-kilometer drive between the two areas into a 40-minute slog. The subway typically takes even longer, sometimes more than 50 minutes, thanks to long lines that snake outside the station.
Given this, commuting by bicycle would seem to be a logical alternative. For years, however, biking was unpopular and unfeasible, as the route between Huilongguan and Shangdi was obstructed by two expressways, forcing cyclists to climb a dirt slope under a railway bridge to get to their destination. This not only increased the time cyclists spent commuting, but also seriously tainted their riding experience.
Then, between 2018 and 2019, the city contracted with a public planning and design firm to construct a bicycle path between Huilongguan and Shangdi. The path, which is 6.5 kilometers long, is accessible through eight entrances and exits. Because it is exclusively designed for bicycles, it has no traffic lights. The path’s designers predicted that the new route would shorten the bicycle commute from Huilongguan to Shangdi Software Park to 26 minutes — making it potentially faster than commuting by car or subway.
But are bicycle paths really a viable cure for China’s “big city illnesses”? Based on data collected by my research team, there’s at least some reason for hope.
According to official data, as of the end of September 2021, the Huilongguan-Shangdi bike path had been used more than 400,000 times, with an average riding distance of 3.8 kilometers and an average riding time of 19 minutes per person. In the process, the path was responsible for reducing carbon emissions by more than 1,000 tons — the equivalent of planting 48,500 trees.
As expected, traffic along the bicycle path mirrors that of subway and car usage, peaking during the morning and evening rush hours. In the process, the bicycle path has effectively alleviated congestion throughout the entire public transit network. According to data provided by the Beijing Municipal Administration Transportation & Communication Card Company, the number of morning rush hour commuters at subway stations along the path has dropped by 7.8% since the path opened, while subway pass data for the whole of Beijing remained stable. Thus, while some commuters have abandoned the subway in favor of cycling, even residents who still choose public transit have seen positive changes in their commute.
Changes in online perceptions of Huilongguan also confirm the benefits of the bicycle path. Under the topic of “Huilongguan” on the popular question and answer site Zhihu, most posts prior to 2018 were concerned with the neighborhood’s poor planning and low quality of life. But in 2019, the dedicated bicycle path became a major point of discussion. A post entitled “What do you think of the first dedicated bicycle path in Beijing?” attracted particular interest, with many commenters expressing the opinion that the path has been beneficial to locals.
On the short video platform Douyin — TikTok’s Chinese counterpart — we analyzed the tone of video content to determine how users felt about Huilongguan. Their perceptions of the neighborhood were expressed as a numerical value from zero to one, with zero being most negative and one being most positive. We found that this value rose from an average of 0.57 prior to the path’s completion in May 2019 to more than 0.8 in June and July.
Judging from both objective commuting data and subjective emotion expressed online, Huilongguan’s dedicated bicycle path has essentially achieved its design goals of alleviating congestion and improving residents’ quality of life. Now the experiment is being expanded: Beijing has already started work on an extension of the bicycle path to link it with another infamous “bedroom town,” Tiantongyuan.
The Huilongguan-Shangdi bicycle path was not the first bicycle path in China. But while cities like Xiamen in Southeast China and Qionglai in the country’s southwest have built dedicated bicycle paths over the past decade, these were primarily scenic in nature. The Huilongguan project’s innovation was to see bike paths’ potential as commuter infrastructure. Chinese urban planners have traditionally focused on bikes’ role in solving the so-called last kilometer problem — that is, how to get people from the closest subway station to their office or home. Yet, the Huilongguan bike path suggests that the improvement of alternative transportation networks has the potential to not only provide people with solutions for the “last kilometer” of their commutes, but also act as a viable alternative for longer distances and even improve the efficiency of transportation systems as a whole.
Improving Chinese transportation networks has taken on new importance in the wake of the country’s 2020 pledge to achieve peak emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060. At present, road transportation is the third-largest source of carbon emissions in China, accounting for approximately 12% of all emissions. Of these, 45% are generated in cities. If we want to encourage urban dwellers to decrease their dependency on cars, we first must improve the commuting experiences of alternative forms of transportation, so that more residents will regard bicycles or public transit as viable options.
Last summer, the city of Xi’an in northwestern China opened its own dedicated bicycle path connecting three urban districts. China, once so famous for scenes of bicycles pouring out of factories, is now looking back to move forward. After decades in which speed was everything, the success of “slow” transportation networks in cities like Copenhagen show us that the value of a city isn’t necessarily in how fast things move. Rather, cities should be welcoming, sustainable, and livable homes for their residents.
Jiang Qi, an urban analyst at UrbanXYZ, equally contributed to this article.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.
(Header image: A view of the bicycle path between Huilongguan and Shangdi in Beijing, May 2019. People Visual)