Op-Ed: Mapping Cycling in China’s Cities

china-elderly street scene bikeRory McMullan, a Mandarin speaking Sustainable Transport campaigner, has spend enough time in enough places in China, more often than not on the seat of his faithful Brompton (which tells you quite a lot about Rory), to have some developed thinking about where city cycling is today, and where it can reasonably hope to be just tomorrow, in particular in “smaller”(??)  and medium sized cities, in that great, ever-surprising and sprawling country.

Mapping Cycling in China’s Cities

To a man with a hammer all problems look like nails

– Rory McMullan, Zhuhai, China

I went to China in 2010 with a personal mission to raise the status of cycling, which I saw as ‘the’ problem, and opportunity, for many of the cities there.  Was I right, or had I imbibed a little too much of the fine wine of European style Mobility Management? Were concepts, such as organising events, marketing and promotion of new mobility ideas, my own personal hammer searching blindly for a nail to hit?

After spending over a year working in China and experiencing the terrifying decline in utility cycling first hand, while there is no doubt that a marketing campaign to promote cycling is an essential component, it’s probably not the place to commence along the critical path towards creating safe cycling cities. That crucial first step is, I believe, the creation of maps for cyclists

Some observations on city cycling in China

Don’t be fooled by everything you read and see about transport in Beijing, Shanghai and China’s other mega cities. The situation that can be observed in many small and medium sized Chinese cities, and the suburbs of the mega cities, today is one of actually still relatively low levels of private car use, high levels of public transport use, comparatively good cycling infrastructure, and high but fairly rapidly declining levels of cycling.


It’s a complicated situation. While cycling may be losing ground in terms of numbers of trips, cycling projects are on the way to becoming fashionable.

Public Bicycle Systems are a new ‘must’ for cities all over China, hundreds of miles of ‘Green Way’ networks for recreational cycle and walking are being built in the Pearl River Delta, and scores of Chinese cities take part in Car Free Day activities.

Fig. 2: Greenway network – Pearl River, Guangdong

All this, and yet sales of low priced bicycles, which are usually used for everyday cycling, are declining by 10% year on year. I believe this is probably an indicator that city cycling is falling at a similarly quick rate.

Given that cycling is just about the most sustainable transport option that exists, (along with walking of course), this is disturbing.

There are numerous reasons for this drop, and status is one, but there is more to it than that.

Objective: “More people cycling, more safely, more often”

Followers of this journal will need no introduction to the benefits to cities of utility cycling; it is efficient in terms of urban space, energy, noise, pollution and safety, and cycling is generally recognised as a component in increasing the health and happiness of citizens.

All of the above benefits can be presented almost like for like as the flip sides of the problems created by China’s infamous mega motorisation and consequent decline in cycling.

What can be done?

The cities themselves are the ones with the ability to change.

Operational responsibility and leadership must come from the city government.

The key stakeholders in city life must be encouraged to get behind the scheme; businesses, police, schools, and the media. Crucially, the project should also enjoy broad public support.

The role of the international New Mobility community is certainly not lecturing about the dangers of motorisation, for we only learn from our own mistakes.

Our contribution must be positive, providing examples of success, such as the role of walking and cycling in place-making, creating great places to live and travel around and how these gains were achieved.

The tipping point would be to convince just one city leader in China to embark on a demonstration project. Success breeds success, and many more cities will follow.

Pushing open the door of opportunity

The most recent and 12th Chinese national 5-year plan included the following objectives:

– Accommodating a rapidly urbanizing population
– Achieving inclusiveness and equal opportunity
– Assuming international responsibility for stability, growth, and sustainability, including tackling climate change

Creating cycle friendly cities seems to fit perfectly with these objectives.

Cycling also fits neatly in with the on-going shift of emphasis from narrow GDP growth towards improving the quality of life for all.

I think that, as Laozi reputedly said, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.

I believe ours is – Mapping the cycle facilities.

Why start with a map?

This first step must be:

–        quick, low cost and have a defined output
–        easy for leaders of a city government to understand
–        have limited and clear objectives and make an effective contribution.
–        provide a platform for the city to garner praise, plaudits and increased profile.
–        engage with key stakeholders, including the city residents

But it must not present any perceived risk of failure.

Mapping a city’s cycle network can achieves all of these goals.

Things to consider when developing a map?

1. Defining the cycle routes

The most fundamental feature of a cycle map is presenting the cycle routes around the city.

In a Chinese City, mapping the segregated lanes, which still run along the sides of most of the boulevards in many cities, and quiet back streets that tend to cater for large numbers of cyclists, a map of a fairly comprehensive cycle network can be developed fairly quickly.


Although, scratch the surface and a number of issues come to light.

A survey of all the routes and some sort of classification system would still be required, because;

Not all cycle lanes are created equal – some are state of the art, wide, two way thoroughfares which allow easy overtaking for cyclists travelling at speed and slow leisurely cycling, while others are just lines painted on the side of roads with fast moving traffic, and some are really just busy pavements which cyclists are directed to use, making for extremely slow progress on a bike.
Fig. 5 – Un-segregated Cycle lane beside dual carriageway – Zhuhai

The side roads also vary tremendously in traffic volume and speed.

While even the best cycle lanes can end at junctions, which are difficult and dangerous to negotiate and therefore best avoided.

So a useful cycle map would require careful route planning.
Fig 5: Typical barrier – Cycle lane ends at footbridge over busy junction – Zhuhai

Colour coding according to route type would be desirable, necessitating surveys and planning.

There are many other route classification options that could be included, from safety to pollution.

However, as the target is to encourage cycling and not produce the most technically perfect cycling map, consideration of budget and speed of delivery must be kept very much in mind.

2. Listing Cycle Friendly Places

The cycle route is only one part of the mapping puzzle; people who refer to a map tend to be going somewhere, so every map should list common destinations.

When travelling by bicycle, facilities available to cyclists may influence a person’s decision as to the best route to take, and best destination for the service or goods they need.

Therefore listing items such as safe cycle parking facilities, bicycle shops, places offering cycle hire, and cycle repair is important.

3. Distribution

Getting the map into the hands, and screens, of cyclists and non-cyclists is of course essential.

The map should be freely available at as many outlets as possible, and as this project should be led by the city, then public sector organisations can provide the core distribution network:

Schools, hospitals, tourist information, government departments, and transport hubs such as bus stations, airports and harbours.

A strategy to get workplaces, universities, restaurants, hotels, cycle shops and the media to distribute and promote the map, is to include them in the mapping process and listing them on the map itself.

4. The Launch

The launch of the map is an opportunity to create awareness of the project with the general public, and thank all the stakeholders who helped.

The launch should take into account what the city government and other stakeholders in the project feel will be most effective.

It should aim to be a major celebration and a media friendly event.

A collaborative process

Mapping is only the first step – so every opportunity to develop groups and networks should be taken.

Local Steering group
A steering group of representatives from the key stakeholders is a method to gather thoughts and experience and provide these key organisations and individuals a role in building the map.

The International Advisory team
As part of the project an advisory team of international experts in mapping could be created through networks such as World Streets.

What’s missing? About £10,000

The cities pictured in this article, Zhangzhou and Zhuhai, are perfect examples of places where cycle rates and infrastructure remain good, and a map will help the cities discover for themselves what they have, and help protect it for future generations.

There is a growing understanding that cycling is important, but grand schemes like the Guangdong Greenway rather than simply mapping a city network attract the international NGOs and City Government funding.

If just a small amount of seed funding could be found, we could work with these cities to under-take the project that would increase utility rather than recreational cycling.

Any suggestions of where to find the kind donor would be most gratefully received.

# # #

Post Scriptum. The collaborative process explained
For the purposes of this first paper on cycling strategies for Chinese cities, we took contact through the ‘World City Bike’ group.
http://finance.groups.yahoo.com/group/WorldCityBike/message/1208
We asked the following questions:

1. What is the best cycling map you have ever done or seen? (With reference and URL if available.)

2. Once you create your cycling map what is the next step?

3. Have you done or considered working with or using in parallel with Open Street Map and/or Google Maps.

From this request, we received over twenty responses, some very detailed, some brief, some personal, some offering opinions others practicalities. From this we have been able to collect quite a comprehensive list of examples from around the world.

Thank-you to the following people who contributed ideas and refernces to this article:

Andrew Curran, Canada
Andrew M Wheeldon, South Africa
Barbara Cuthbert , New Zealand
Benoit Beroud, France
Eric Callé, France
Ezra Goldman, Denmark/USA
Gail Jennings, South Africa
Gil Penalosa, Colombia
Ian Fidies, Sweden
Jane Voodilon, China
Jena Niquidet, Canada
Josip Rotar, Slovenia
K i r s t e n S h o u l e r, New Zealand
Ludo Campbell-Reid, New Zealand
Mike Lydon, USA
Morten Lange, Iceland
Peter Smith, USA
Randy Neufeld, USA
Richard Layman, USA
Steve Southall, New Zealand
Todd Edelman, Germany
Zvi Leve, Canada

We shall also be inviting their comments on this article.

Appendix:
Examples from abroad:
http://www.portlandonline.com/transportation/index.cfm?c=39402&a=322407
http://www.sfbike.org/download/SF_Bike_Map_2009.pdf
http://www.translink.ca/en/Cycling/Cycling-Routes.aspx
http://www.geovelo.fr
http://www.cyclevancouver.ubc.ca/cv.aspx
http://www.bikemap.net
http://www.cyclevancouver.ubc.ca/cv.aspx
http://www.mobiped.com/plan_d_acces_mobiped.html
http://www.capetown.gov.za/en/MyCiti/Pages/Cyclingandwalking.aspx
http://www.openrouteservice.org/index.php?start=-21.8704335,64.1345528&end=-21.936633,64.1476236&pref=BicycleRoute&lang=en&noMotorways=false&noTollways=false
http://bike-pgh.org/campaigns/commuter-bike-maps/
http://issuu.com/monoline/docs/cykelkort_2010
http://mappery.com/New-York-City-Bike-Map
http://www.portlandonline.com/transportation/index.cfm?a=70221&c=34809
http://mappery.com/San-Francisco-Bike-Map
http://www.cyclecopenhagen.dk/3c/master.php
http://www.livinglabs-global.com/showcase/showcase/473/billy-bike-in-copenhagen.aspx

# # #

Rory McMullan, Sustainable Transport campaigner, China/UK:

rory-mcmullanThis article by Rory McMullan, who is working on a long-term program to do what is needed to retain cycling as a serious transportation option in medium and smaller Chinese cities, started with a call for ideas to one of World Streets Facebook Focus Groups – the World City Bike Forum. Comments on this working paper, which builds on some of these contributions, are welcome and will be shared with all who wish to join in.

Rory has been living Car Free since 1970, and has worked in the Sustainable Transport field in the UK in a number of roles. As a Mandarin Chinese speaker, he has a close interest in China, and the Far East.  He recently spent 18 months in China with an objective to protect bicycle use and culture in the country. During this time he worked for a number of organisations, managed several international events and projects, and appeared regularly on TV and in other media.  He currently works as a project manager for Landor LINKS, a UK based transport and urban design publishing and events organisation. www.landor.co.uk

About the editor:

eb-automotive-5mar13

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