Return to the bike? Hard sell in Beijing

As Beijing marks car-free day for the first time, an entrepreneur pushes citywide rental scheme.

Few cities on earth are in such dire need of a solution to their traffic problems as Beijing. Drivers here are so accustomed to choking on exhaust fumes, stuck for hours in tailbacks that they scarcely even complain.

So the Beijing city council's decision to join this year's World Carfree Day for the first time would seem to be a cause for rejoicing.

Don't cheer too loudly, though. The centerpiece of the authorities' plan for Saturday is to temporarily ban private cars from two stretches of downtown street, each about 250 yards long. That's 0.003 per cent of Beijing's roads.

It is not exactly the courageous blow for a livable city that Wang Yong, an energetic bicycle enthusiast and entrepreneur, had hoped for. But Mr. Wang has his own plan to tame Beijing's streets and perhaps make some money, too.

The Beijing Bicycle Rental Co., Mr. Wang admits, is a bit of a David in the face of the capital's Goliath-like traffic monster. But he has high hopes that as Beijingers' frustration levels rise, the seductive charms and status of driving an automobile will seem less tempting, and that they will return to the bicycles they have deserted by the millions in recent years.

"We Chinese have a special feeling for bicycles, and cars have brought catastrophic damage to our society and our environment," Wang says. "Every civilized citizen has to be aware … that we have to bring bikes back into our daily lives."

His business is simple: customers pick up a bike at one of the company's rental stations – a straightforward model adapted to Beijing's sometimes bumpy streets – leave a 400 yuan ($53) credit-card deposit, and whiz away. When they are finished, they drop the bike off at another station and get their deposit back.

The service costs 5 yuan ($0.66) an hour, 20 yuan ($2.66) a day, or 100 yuan ($13.33) for a year-long VIP card. "The longer you rent, the cheaper it gets," Wang says, "because we want to encourage people to use a green mode of transportation for longer. I see this as a public-service business."

The company is still in its infancy, funded by the profits Wang makes from his three restaurants. It has set up only 31 rental points around central Beijing so far, offering 500 bikes. But Wang envisions 200 rental stations and 50,000 bikes by the end of 2008, achieving an economy of scale that he thinks will make the business work.

He is focusing on subway stations, hoping that customers will find his rental spots convenient enough to ditch their cars and take up biking at either end of a metro ride.

Even confirmed bike riders who own their own wheels might use the service, Wang hopes. In a city the size of Beijing, he points out "you can't take your own bike everywhere every day. Our business lets you convert your own bike into a card in your pocket."

The Beijing Bicycle Rental Co.'s major problem so far has been convincing the local authorities to allow it to establish rental centers. "There are a lot of different government agencies involved in this and it takes time to negotiate with all of them," says Wang. "So far, we have not had any active help from the government."

He looks with envy toward Europe, where Parisian authorities have set up an official citywide bike-rental system that works much like Wang's and where cities across the continent are encouraging the use of bicycles instead of cars.

He says he is baffled by Beijing's continuing trend to eliminate the bike lanes that once took up most of its roadways, and to make more room for motor vehicles instead. "It makes me feel lost when I see that," he says. "It's the absolute opposite from other countries."

But he is encouraged by the results of a day-long promotion of his business last month by a popular Beijing radio station. That brought him national TV coverage, which suggests that someone in authority likes his scheme, and potential partners who had shunned him when he launched his firm two years ago now seem to think his time has come, Wang says.

Insurance companies which had said they could not insure his bikes against rampant theft have changed their minds; bicycle manufacturers are competing to offer him discounts on bulk purchases, and the bank that refused to let him install credit card terminals in his rental cabins two years ago is now offering them free.

The company is still in search of customers, though, and Beijing is by no means as bike-friendly as it was before prosperity clogged its avenues and side streets with 3 million cars (and counting: 1,000 new cars hit city streets daily.)

Even one of Wang's most ardent backers, retired Utah businessman and bike freak Bill Delvie, who has volunteered his services to promote rentals, acknowledges bluntly that "this is the most dangerous city in the world to ride.

"You have to be alert, wide awake, and you have to know what you are doing," he warns. "But if you watch what the Chinese are doing, then you get savvy."

Wang says he is confident the Chinese will eventually get savvy enough to get out from behind their steering wheels and onto two wheels. "We used to be poor and look forward to owning a car as a status symbol, but we have to get over that," he insists. "The government moves slowly, slowly, but I see things getting brighter. We just have to be patient."

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