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August 21, 2017

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From bikes to cars to bikes in a generation

At 6:30 every morning, you will find Bian Ce pedaling for 10 minutes from his downtown Beijing home to the nearest subway station. The 51-year-old then parks his rented bike at an assigned spot and rides the subway for the next 50 minutes to work.

The city of Beijing wants to persuade more of its residents to follow the example of commuters like Bian in switching to the bicycle lane.

Last month, the capital announced plans to bring back the bike. Part of its road map to a greener, less polluted city involves going big on renting out bicycles so that commuters will ride rather than drive.

The municipal government said in its latest Green Action Plan that it aims to have a network of 500 bike rental booths with 20,000 bikes by 2012. The plan did not provide details on how the government would achieve this. There are currently an estimated 100 such booths located mainly in the heart of the sprawling city.

The one-time bicycle capital of the world, Beijing has ditched two-wheelers in favor of cars as its main mode of transport in a single generation.

While that was initially seen as proof that China's economic modernization had trickled down to ordinary people, Beijing is now having second thoughts after an explosive growth of the car population led to clogged arterial roads and an often greyish sky.

Beijing now has more than four million cars, and counting. Severe traffic congestion and pollution are making life miserable for its 17 million residents and visitors.

On paper, the new bike plan seems capable of solving many of the city's woes. Besides helping to ease congestion and pollution, enthusiasts say renting bikes is a better option than buying. A bicycle can cost as little as 200 yuan (US$29) here. But there is one drawback: Bike theft is a rampant problem.

Having a network of rent-and-ride stalls also allows commuters to switch to the bicycle anywhere around town. Cycling might even stop the city's rising obesity problem "in its tracks," an industry insider quipped.

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