Commuter Cycling in Beijing

JUCA’s David Du Preez and Mehita Iqani had the opportunity to spend a few days in Beijing, China in July this year.

Beijing is a city of almost 12 million inhabitants and the capital of China. During the height of the communist era, the bicycle was the government-endorsed mode of transport for the people, and considered one of the three “must-haves” for a comfortable life, to the extent that the nation “became known as zixingche wang guo, the Kingdom of Bicycles”.

Since the 1990s, China’s economy moved to a version of free-market economics, and has witnessed one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, second only to the United States. Since China’s economic boom, cars have become more popular in big cities like Beijing. Nevertheless, there are still millions of bicycles in the city, and its flat topography, wide streets and generous, protected bicycle lanes on every street make it the commuter cyclists dream.


Bicycle lanes are extremely wide, able to accommodate two to three cycles abreast, as well as the ubiquitous electric scooters – which although only slightly faster than the bicycles, tend to be respectful of cyclists.


Bicycle lanes were typically separated by little white fences from the motorized traffic, and at times were also protected by a row of parked cars.


We were struck by the general sense of respect which all road users showed each other. We saw very few cars or mopeds speeding, and all users of the bicycle lanes seemed to show great awareness of the movements of other bicycle lane users.



Bicycle lanes had protected balustrades to ensure that other vehicles could not use them.


It was such a pleasure to see old and young people on bicycles – from white-haired grandparents to little children standing between their parents legs on the front of an electric bicycle.


Bicycle parking was ample and plenty – available on practically every street corner.


Many narrow roads (or hutongs) were closed to motor traffic.


Commuters used their bicycles to transport many things – even their pets!



The wide, flat roads made even long commutes possible – we managed was a 24km round trip from central Beijing to the 789 Art District.


Beijing (and many other Chinese cities) also have bike share schemes.


Even though the car seems to be growing in popularity in Beijing, there are some moves by the government to re-popularize the bicycle as a move to reduce pollution, which is serious problem due to the country’s rapid industrialisation. In general, the Chinese attitude to providing infrastructure for commuter cycling was inspiring and showed a real commitment to the common good. Johannesburg could learn a lot from this model cyclist-friendly city.


Lessons from Copenhagen

JUCA’s Njogu Morgan recently visited Copenhagen, for his PhD fieldwork. Here are his thoughts on what Johannesburg can learn from the famously cycle-friendly city.

Recently I was in Copenhagen as part of my fieldwork towards PhD research into the development of cycling cultures in urban areas. As is well known, Copenhagen is one of the most cycling friendly cities around the world.

I did not find otherwise. Cycling in Copenhagen was simply joyful. There were swarms of people on bicycles everywhere. Here is a picture of a cyclist counter I took one morning.

Bicycle Traffic Counter
Bicycle Traffic Counter

It shows that by 9am there had already been close to 3,000 cyclists passing through the cycle track at this point.

The traffic culture I found to be very respectful. At street intersections, pedestrians and cyclists are kings and queens. Motorists wait patiently while those cycling or walking cross even on many occasions as I observed, motorists could easily take the gap. At intersections and even on streets that do not have protected cycling paths, I felt at relaxed because I quickly realised that motorists are extremely observant of cyclists and pedestrians.

The infrastructure is simply fantastic. I crisscrossed the city on a bike that friends loaned me. Everywhere I traveled, there were protected cycling tracks or traffic calmed streets. In areas of the City without protected cycling tracks, traffic speeds were reduced drastically.

Protected Bike Lane
Protected Bike Lane

As a result I did not experience anxiety or the rush of adrenaline associated with interacting with vehicles when the balance of forces are tilted towards vehicles.

Here is a picture of a bridge for pedestrians and cycling.

Pedestrian and Cyclist Bridge
Pedestrian and Cyclist Bridge

You can see to the far right cyclists turning right from a protected cycle track adjacent to a major motorway. From this track they can travel across the bridge onto the other side without confronting fast moving vehicles.

Copenhagen is adorned with many pieces of small infrastructures that say to the cyclist hey you – we are thinking of you. Here is a picture of bicycle ramp up a stairwell into a train station.

Bicycle Ramp up Stairs to Train Station Platform
Bicycle Ramp up Stairs to Train Station Platform

Bicycle parking is available everywhere in the City. See this highly visible bicycle parking at a new mall.

Bicycle Parking at a Mall in Copenhagen
Bicycle Parking at a Mall in Copenhagen

And at a growing number of intersections there are hand rails for the cyclist to hold onto so they do not have to dismount while they wait for the green light to arrive. The hand rails are also perfect for pushing off.

Bicycles are used for every conceivable purpose that fits into everyday life. See below a picture of cargo bicycle parked outside a bicycle shop.

Cargo Bike Outside Danish Cyclists' Federation Office
Cargo Bike Outside Danish Cyclists’ Federation Office

Taking the children about town – yes sure. As the picture below shows.

Kids in Transport Bike in Copenhagen
Kids in Transport Bike in Copenhagen

Because of this positive orientation towards the bicycle, Copenhagen has a problem that many other cities would love to have; in the central areas during rush hours, the high volume of bikes is creating congestion. The City is responding to this by expanding the width of lanes amongst other measures. Imagine however if all those cyclists were each in their own individual car? The degree of congestion and associated air pollution would be, well simply terrible.

I could endlessly describe the many other ways in which Copenhagen is a fantastic city to bike around…including the unparalleled integration with public transport (taxi-cabs included)…But I think you get the idea.

So what can Johannesburg learn from Copenhagen? In short a lot. But here I draw 2 lessons.

1. Simply “cutting and pasting” solutions from Copenhagen to Johannesburg will not work.

For example some of the designs of the protected cycling tracks transposed into Johannesburg – and South Africa in general would be no deterrent for vehicles. On the far left of the image below, you see a cycle track protected in height and by small barrier from the street.

Protected Cycling Track by School
Protected Cycling Track by School

In contexts where vehicles commonly park on sidewalks, drive on emergency lanes, ignore Zebra crossings, and seemingly accelerate when they spot pedestrians, a few inches in height of separation from the streets will be easily scaled.

Other designs for example where the cycle track is separated by trees or other physical barriers are likely to be more effective.

2. The public image of the bicycle and related attitudes and perceptions towards non-motorised transport are if not more, at least as important as the infrastructure that reflects them.

People using all modes of transportation – cycling, walking, driving, by train – respect each other. While street design and infrastructure at intersections certainly help, I think a large part of the answer is that cycling is not a stigmatised mode of transportation. Everyone rides a bicycle. The old, children, women, men, teenagers and people form all social classes.

Family riding accoss street
Family riding accoss street

Without this legitimation, motorists could easily tramp over the rights of pedestrians and cyclists.

Changing conceptions of speed

On November 15 1902, the Star Newspaper in Johannesburg published a letter by someone complaining about the increasing speeds of motor cars. He was very distressed that a friend of his nearly fell of his horse when a car travelling at least 18 miles an hour (about 29kms/hr) whizzed by.

He requested that the Town Council revert to the previously set 7 miles an hour (11kms/hr) speed limit for all vehicles. Anything else would “constitute[s] a public danger.”

How things change.  These days in Johannesburg 60kms/hr is considered a lazy pace. It may be the case in many other cities in the world. Perhaps this is why 30km/hr is considered a desirable campaign goal that may increase the safety of cyclists and pedestrians. For example see this campaign.

What will the near future bring?