China ends 'bicycle kingdom' as embracing cars
China is signalling the beginning of the end of its status as the world's "bicycle kingdom" as an emerging middle class increasingly forgoes the clean and energy efficient transport in favour of the car.
The reasoning behind doing away with registration, which is expected to occur nationwide, is that the bike has been downgraded from one of the most significant family purchases some 20 years ago to a cheap machine used mainly by the poor.
Despite China's new found love for fossil fuel driven transport, the nation still produced 78 million bikes in 2003, or one third of the world's total, while in 2002 every 100 households had nearly 143 bikes.
But the rise of the car has been rapid.
In Beijing, some four million bikes now compete for road space with more than two million cars, and a quick glance at the newly widened boulevards, overpasses and ring roads of the capital clearly shows which means of transport has been getting priority.
"The government doesn't really care about bikes. They do not have a policy for encouraging bicycle riding," Amanda Cui of the Beijing environmental group, the Global Village, told AFP.
"In fact they often discourage bike riding. They want to encourage private cars and public transportation. The government's car policy is viewed as a pillar of the economy and will not change because of environmental concerns."
But the rise of auto emitted pollution is growing at an alarming rate in Chinese cities.
China is the world's second largest emitter of greenhouse gases and the price of oil could soon become prohibitively high for many of China's car owners.
Beijing's bicycle lanes, once some of the nicest and safest in the world, have increasingly been transformed into motor vehiclular lanes or parking areas, much to the dislike of those who still rely on the bike.
Increasing protests over the takeover of the bike lanes largely resulted in Beijing also cancelling its four yuan (0.50 cent) annual bike tax earlier this year, said Wei Qizhong, an unemployed worker who now survives as a bicycle repairman on Beijing's streets.
"The tax collectors used to stop bicyclists right on the street and make them pay the tax, but too many people refused to pay because more and more cars were permitted to use the bike lanes," Wei told AFP.
Rescinding the registration process and the bike tax will now give the government a freer hand on how it administers traffic regulations and bicyclists, he added.
"Right now we cannot do anything about the traffic situation in the city, the Beijing Traffic Administrative Bureau is in charge of traffic regulations, they will not listen to us," said Zhang Lihua, vice president of both the China Cycling Association and the Beijing Cycling Association.
"A lot of regulations are not beneficial to bicyclists, but the bureau has to be strict because there are three to four million bikes in Beijing and two million cars.
"Our organization can raise opinions on how to better administer bike safety and strive for a better environment for bicycles, but right now in China there is no organization that is strictly responsible for safeguarding the rights of bicyclists."
Zhang, whose organization is mainly mandated to administer cycling sports, said that for short and middle distances it was still much more efficient to cycle than to take a car or taxi because of the traffic jams on city roads.
But fewer and fewer people are riding bikes because of the inconvenience and the increased dangers that cars bring to the road.
"Nowadays there are just too many accidents with a lot of cyclists and pedestrians getting hurt, and with all the ring roads and overpasses, biking is becoming too inconvenient and too dangerous," Zhang said.
Despite this, it is not yet final curtains for the two-wheeler, the authorities insist.
"The improvement in the state economy, the traffic situation and city management does not mean that Chinese are saying a final and complete farewell to the bicycle," Duan Liren, vice head of the Beijing Traffic Administration Bureau, told the China Social News.
"Some people will still choose this non-polluting, small and green transport tool."