Free bicycles reducing pollution in China

Innovative bicycle schemes in China and India are tackling chronic air pollution problems and congestion by encouraging people to stop using cars.

Hangzhou Bicycle Service
One of Hangzhou Bicycle Service’s 3,600 bicycle stands. Image: Paul Starkey/Ashden via Climate News Network

In China everyone used to travel by bicycle, then along came an urban middle class and the cities were choked with private cars.

Now the bicycle is making a comeback, and, at least if you live in Hangzhou in Zhejiang province, you don’t even have to own one because the city will provide a bike for you to ride for free.

What began as an experiment to see if it was possible to reduce both air pollution and congestion has become a major success story, not just in Hangzhou but in 175 cities across the country.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Hangzhou Bicycle Service is that it makes a profit.

Companies pay for advertisements on the bicycles and on the kiosks where they are stored and rented from. This pays the wages of those who run the scheme.

Made in China

The experiment in Hangzhou started in 2008 with 2,800 bicycles, and there are now plans to scale up to 200,000 due to its popularity.

There are several keys to the scheme’s success. For starters, although a card is required to hire a bicycle, the first hour is free so if you can get to work or a train or bus stop in under an hour you never have to pay. More than 90 per cent of all rides taken are free.

Plus, the organisation provides a cycle park every 300 metres, with attendants nearby to solve any problems. Each attendant runs 35 stands.

A central control room keeps an eye on the entire operation, ensuring there are plenty of cycles available where they are needed.

Another reason it works so well is that it is integrated with all other forms of public transport, so the card that you use for bicycle hire also works on buses, the metro, water taxis and trains.

Across the city there is a network of bicycle lanes and bicycle traffic signals providing access to every public transport hub.

The authorities have boosted the scheme by imposing parking restrictions and, in some parts, banning petrol-powered motorcycles and scooters.

The Chinese based the idea on a bicycle hire project that operated in Paris. It is one of a number projects competing for an award in the sustainable transport category at the Ashden Awards in London, which will be presented on 15 June by Al Gore, the former US vice- president turned climate campaigner, at the Royal Geographical Society. The winners will receive £20,000 towards their businesses.

Indian bicycles

Another bicycle project has taken off in India, a country that also has serious problems with air pollution and congestion. Based in the city of Coimbatore, in Tamil Nadu, Ampere Vehicles make low-cost electric bicycles, scooters and flatbed vehicles for carrying loads.

The company is a candidate for the same Ashden award as the Hangzhou Bicycle Service.

To date, Ampere has sold more than 14,000 longlife battery-powered vehicles. Many of the load carriers are being used by municipalities for collecting refuse and by large factories for carrying goods.

Private buyers tend to use their electric bicycles to get to work or are people who run small businesses and carry samples or goods on their bikes – for example, coconut collectors and tea sellers.

The machines have no gears and are simple to operate. The Ampere versions of electric vehicles fall into the same category as bicycles because they are regulated to a maximum speed of 25 kilometres an hour.

This gives them a huge advantage as it means owners don’t need to worry about taxation, a driving licence, insurance or a protective helmet. 

This story was published with permission from Climate News Network.

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