I had an amazing day. I took a cycling tour of the city with Bike Beijing, visiting or viewing the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square, City Wall Relics Park, Drum Tower, Bell Tower, Houhai Lake, Great Hall of the People, and the National Theater. I learned and experienced so much that it would be overwhelming to write about all of it in detail. So, I am going to just talk about the biking experience and visiting the traditional hutong neighborhoods.
Well, let me say that there isn’t a city in America that can match the biking experience I had today. I was on a pretty standard gearless commuter bike (by Giant), with the most important piece of equipment being a tiny bell on the right handlebar. This was critical because it could be used to warn pedestrians or slower bikers (with a jaunty chime) that you were coming from behind. My guide, Alan (the name he chose when studying English at university in Henan province), demonstrated this early and often — I got the hang of it as we went along!
What is awesome about biking in Beijing is that pretty much every major road has a dedicated bike lane going in both directions, with plenty of room for multiple bikes. Even better, on the busiest roads these are fully segregated cycle tracks — meaning they are separated from traffic by a physical barrier. Recent studies have shown that this can lead to increased safety because motor vehicles are excluded from this part of the road, although intersecting traffic at major cross-streets remains somewhat dangerous. Some researchers argue that shared space roads are safer, but it seems to me that the perceived safety of segregated cycle tracks leads more people to bike, which results in reduced per-biker crash frequency and quite large health and environmental benefits.
While there probably was not as high a percentage of people biking compared with cities like Copenhagen or Freiburg, there were still large numbers of cyclists. There were also many people operating electric-scooters, which my guide said can be the most dangerous because you cannot hear them coming behind you and they rarely follow traffic rules — so they are more environmentally-friendly, but less pedestrian-friendly! We had a somewhat breezy day, which made it lovely to bike around the city. Beijing is very flat, so getting around took very little exertion — I didn’t even come close to breaking a sweat on an eighty-plus degree day.
What is so interesting about Beijing is that although it has a world-class public transit system and enviable biking infrastructure, there is a rapidly growing number of cars as the residents become wealthier. Alan told me that there were now six million cars in the city — the number rising because motor vehicles are seen as a symbol of wealth. Although the overall number is actually quite small for a city of twenty million, the upward trend is disturbing. As an environmentalist, however, I would be happy if any American could come close to matching Beijing’s existing transportation mix.
We started the day biking through the traditional hutong neighborhoods north of the Forbidden City. Hutongs (which comes from the Mongolian for town) are essentially little neighborhoods composed of courtyard houses connected by narrow alleyways. Historically they were built around a common water source, usually a shared well. The houses are almost all single story structures. Originally they were inhabited by a single family, but as the city’s population grew they were broken up into multiple dwellings. The one we went inside had about ten retired couples living in separate rooms. Alan told me that most of the hutongs are populated with the older generation because young people prefer to move into an apartment building.
In some ways it is hard to know what to make of the hutongs from an environmental perspective. This is a true example of horizontal density, where people are packed relatively tightly into a small area. What makes the hutong model attractive is the social connections that are formed in these tight-knit communities. At least one downside is that this real estate becomes very expensive. In addition, if this was adopted in advanced economies it would be difficult to gain enough density to offset greater energy consumption with a single floor of living space. Even in Beijing these neighborhoods are steadily losing out to vertical development. The government is seeking to preserve the hutongs that I traveled through in the north, but some poorer hutongs I biked through in the south have been targeted for redevelopment. Alan suggested that in the past several decades more than three-quarters of the original hutongs have given way to taller buildings. This is mostly because there is pressure to house the growing population. But, it also has positive environmental implications (I will discuss this more in future posts).
Well, it was a very fun day cycling around such a bike-friendly city and seeing the transformation from the traditional hutongs to more modern apartment blocks. Tomorrow I will be hiking the Great Wall!