In one Shanghai district, a unique programme encouraging residents to ditch their gas-guzzlers for bicycles is quietly changing the face of the city's urban transportation. Over 12 months, a programme that began with a couple of stations attached to metro-rail terminals has expanded to a network of 230 stations with 12,000 bicycles.
China's sprawling commercial capital usually never fails to impress the steady stream of Indian businessmen who frequent this city, with its shiny skyscrapers, towering steel bridges and state-of-the-art infrastructure.
In Shanghai's booming commercial district Pudong, six-lane highways and an ultra-fast magnetic levitation train are usually the focus of envy — and surefire triggers of conversations about why India's infrastructure continues to pale in comparison to China's.
But beyond the glitz of high-tech, envy-inducing Pudong, a little-known and unfashionable Shanghai suburb has an equally important lesson for India in how to better plan its cities.
Over the past 12 months, a quiet transportation revolution has been unfolding in sprawling Minhang district. This revolution has invested in a very low-tech, but extremely effective, solution to the problems of crowding and infrastructure bottle-necks that are so common to Indian cities — bicycles.
This past year, the local government has been encouraging the city's fast-growing middle-class population to ditch their gas-guzzlers for two-wheels, in an expansive and ambitious programme that makes free bicycles available to residents.
Free bicycle-renting programmes are by no means unique to Shanghai — New Delhi, too, has recently launched a bike-sharing scheme. But the sheer scale of this effort, as well as the unprecedented public response, has attracted attention across China, making urban planners sit up and take notice.
Shanghai, like many of China's cities, has seen its urban infrastructure stretched to its limits over the past decade. With the city's rising prosperity, its population has steadily grown — and so have car sales. Transportation officials have faced a challenge in dissuading newly affluent Chinese from taking to the roads — for middle-class Chinese, owning a car, and particularly, gas-guzzling SUVs (Sports Utility Vehicles), is an important status symbol.
In Minhang, though, the bicycle-sharing programme has received a widely positive public response. Over 12 months, a programme that began with a couple of stations attached to metro-rail terminals has expanded to a network of 230 stations with 12,000 bicycles. More than 10,000 residents have signed on.
How does the programme work? The bicycles are available 24 hours a day. Each resident is given an ID card, with which one can rent and return bicycles at any of the stations, usually located near metro-rail terminals. Private bicycle-renting companies have also been roped in.
Zhong Ming of the Forever Bicycle Company, which is part of the scheme, said the company planned to add 6,500 more bikes in the next five years to keep up with the rising demand.
Spreads to Xuhui
The Minhang bicycle rage has, this month, spread to Xuhui district, which has set up another network of stations that connect with its metro-rail system. Residents there are charged 2 Yuan (Rs.14) for every hour of renting a bicycle.
Among the growing legion of cyclists is Zhao Minjie, who signed on this year. The bikes, he said, plugged the gap of the last five kilometres of his long commute to work, which involved an hour-long metro-rail ride. After the scheme was introduced, he decided to not buy a car.
Part of the reason for the scheme's success has been the emphasis on connectivity. Xu Xuefeng, a transportation official, said he envisioned seamless connectivity between the metro network, the bicycle-renting programme and bus routes.
Crucially, the city has also invested heavily in setting up bicycle-dedicated lanes — even at the cost of space for cars — and expanding space for pedestrians, part of a billion-dollar makeover for the on-going World Expo.
In Shanghai, another reason for the renewed appeal for bicycles is the city's unique licence-issuing system, which now caps the number of car-licences issued every month to ease pressure on traffic.
At monthly auctions, car-owners now have to compete to get their hands on precious licence-plates. The lust for cars has grown so fast, that in June's auction the average price of a licence plate was a whopping 40,380 Yuan or Rs.2.75 lakh. In a city where a licence plate now costs as much as a car, it's no surprise that bicycles are back in favour.