China’s Great Leap Forward – Bicycle NSW

Image credits: WeRide, Australia; Zhang Quangyi, On the way to the new sports field, 1954,

According to World Bank Transport Analyst Sam Johnson, China recognizes the extensive advantages for population health, wellbeing, productivity, decongestion, and decarbonisation. Additionally, these benefits have a positive impact on the economy. Whilst motorways result in a loss, bike infrastructure offers a minimum return on investment of 5:1, or 500%.

It’s ironic moreover, that a command economy like China has made the economically rational decision to prioritize people over cars. Meanwhile, Australia remains ideologically attached to a car-first paradigm

The baby and the bath water: Shifting from a car-first to a people-first paradigm

 In the 1980s, under Deng Xiaoping, China’s economy opened up to western trade. As a result, the newly cashed-up middle class ditched their bikes for cars. What followed was a lightning version of the industrial revolution complete with motorways, congestion, deadly pollution, collisions and poor population health.

So, realising that in adopting market capitalism it had thrown out something precious, China adapted yet again, at light speed. Between 2010- 2021, 80,000 km of greenways were built. Plus innumerable walking and biking share paths and lanes. “That’s 800 times the distance between Sydney and Melbourne,” notes Sam Johnson.

The problem with Beijing and the solution

Google ‘smog’ and you’ll be taken to the deadly whiteness of Beijing. 47% of the pollution comes from motor vehicles. But over recent years there has been significant improvement through a stick and carrot approach. This included a car diet, strict parking and pollution controls and massive investment in walking and cycling. From 2018- 2020, car use decreased by 3.8% while bike traffic increased by 23.6% to reach a 15.3% mode share.

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