Beijing, China

Last week I took a trip to Beijing, the capital city of China. As you probably know, China is the most populous country in the world, by far, with a registered population of almost 1.4 billion. That is roughly equivalent to the population of Europe, North, Central and South America combined, in a single country…

While China is huge (third largest geographical area in the world after Russia and Canada), much of this population is concentrated into urban areas. You may not know there are 144 cities with an urban population over 1 million people. Which may seem hard to believe. If you take metropolitan or administrative area into account, this number is significantly higher.

Needless to say, stats like these indicate major challenges for urban planning, and with government policy focussed on economic growth, it is safe to say some other policy areas are deprioritised.

Beijing, has a registered urban population of c.21.5 million people, and some pretty infamous pollution. I had the opportunity to experience this first hand last week, and can confirm it is considerably worse than any other city I have visited. To have to breathe that toxic air daily must be incredibly harmful and I dread to think of the effects on young children.

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The following picture clearly shows the polluted air visible from the plane I arrived on.

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You may recall seeing photos until the mid 80s of hundreds of thousands of bicycles being used as a principal means of urban transport. Since the 1980s, with the growth of the economy, the bicycle has been actively displaced by cars, which now clog the streets and contribute to the pollution.

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It seems bicycles are making a (small) comeback. Electric bicycles are popular in Chinese cities (often on pavements, at night and with the lights turned off), but it seems the public rentable bicycle is also making an appearance.

Personally, I wouldn’t feel comfortable riding in horrendous traffic, breathing toxic air, but apparently some people do. I saw quite a few of these bikes in downtown Beijing, one of which had a pretty interesting tyre design. This one is by Mobike.

The tyre is solid rubber, but has holes drilled through it. Presumably this decreases production cost, avoids maintaining inner tubes, provides some cushioning and decreases rotational weight. I always enjoy a simple, low tech solution, and this is pretty clever.

While this can have only the most minimal effect on the country’s pollution, it’s a step in the right direction. But it would be a long path back to the mass bicycle use of yesteryear!

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