BEIJING -- Quaint, practical and environmentally safe, the bicycle is China's most popular way to get around and as much a part of the national experience as chopsticks. On weekdays, hundreds of thousands of cyclists pour over the capital's broad boulevards and weave along its narrow lanes.
If a recent government decision is any indication, though, the bicycle proliferation in Beijing could slowly be coming to an end. Last month, city officials for the first time banned bicycles from one of the capital's roads -- East Xisi Street, about a mile northwest of the Forbidden City.
The ban, which is designed to alleviate traffic jams, was a victory for the bicycle's archrival and one of the heaviest sources of pollution in this greatly polluted city -- the car. Cyclists were furious.
"We common people have no say," said Wang Liqiang,
27-year-old who sells decorations at the other end of the 300-yard-long street. "This is a road and you don't allow people to go through! Why do you call it a road?"
If the ban along East Xisi is successful, more could follow.
"Beijing will expand the bicycle-forbidden routes on the basis of the experiment on this street," the state-run Beijing Youth Daily said recently.
The conflict between bikes and cars encompasses some of the major issues in modern China, including class, technology and the environment. Two decades ago, bikers rode unfettered across the capital and car ownership was but a distant dream.
Since China began developing a more market-oriented economy, though, incomes have risen and more people have bought cars. There are 1.3 million cars in the capital.
China's emerging middle class and the newly rich view the automobile as a status symbol. Bicycles -- Beijing has an estimated 9 million of them -- are seen as tools of the common people, or "laobaixing."
While the bicycle has numbers on its side, the car has something more powerful: time and government support. Chinese leaders are encouraging car ownership to boost the nation's domestic auto industry and foster a more modern image.
Progress, though, is coming at a heavy price: mind-numbing traffic jams and an air pollution problem that is slowly choking urban China. Factory smoke, coal dust and vehicle emissions have boosted air pollution levels in major cities to two to five times World Health Organization standards. In Beijing, smog occasionally runs so thick that you can see only the outlines of a 20-story building three blocks away.
Drive time is a free-for-all in which cars, buses, taxis, pedestrians and bicycles vie for increasingly precious space. Cars plow through the bike lanes, which are separated from the main roads by concrete median strips. At traffic lights, bicycles envelop automobiles like schools of piranha. Fender-benders and shouting matches are common.
Hoping to bring order out of chaos, local officials decided after six months of study to prohibit cyclists along East Xisi, a commercial strip of restaurants, music shops and specialty stores where as many as 6,000 bikes used to pass each hour.
During peak periods, cars could sit for 20 minutes as five police officers struggled to direct traffic. Banning bikes freed up the street to taxis, private cars and the seven bus lines that use the four-lane road. The prohibition extends from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m.
Now, at the entrance to East Xisi, a police officer stands all day barking orders into a blue megaphone. "Get off!" he tells bicyclists as they approach. "Turn around!"
Police allow people to walk their bikes down the street. Once they have passed the officers, though, some jump back on and continue pedaling.
The ban on East Xisi has raised questions about who will dominate the capital's road system. Some insist that if space is to be divided, it must be done so fairly.
"To ban only one form of mass transportation is biased and discriminatory," a recent Beijing Youth Daily editorial said. "To separate the two, you must correspondingly ban motorized vehicles from certain roads and make these roads especially for bicycles."
The bicycle first arrived in China in the late 19th century, ridden by a pair of Americans on a three-year journey from Istanbul. The vehicle became popular in the Qing Dynasty Court, where the boy-emperor Puyi rode one around the vermilion walls of the Forbidden City.
Today, China has nearly 500 million bikes ranging from the traditional one-gear "Flying Pigeon" to sleek models for mountain riding. The bicycle remains such an integral part of Chinese culture that the ban along East Xisi has already hurt businesses there.
Since bikes were prohibited, fewer children use the street to ride back home from school and sales at a local toy store have dropped by half. The shop's owner, who gave only her surname of Zhang, said local merchants are talking about organizing and asking the traffic bureau to repeal the ban.
"In China, we don't have this sort of consultation," said Zhang, 26, referring to the nation's authoritarian style of government where public hearings are unheard of. "I hope [the ban lasts] a short time, otherwise the street will be dead."
While merchants and bike riders generally oppose the ban, some drivers are relieved. Qi, a 41-year-old cabbie, is tired of pedestrians and bicyclists swarming into intersections with impunity while he faces stiff fines for similar behavior.
"In the past, I was sometimes blocked by the bicycles," said Qi, referring to East Xisi. "But I was there yesterday and it was quite nice."
Pub Date: 11/06/98