bicycle_china.jpgChina seems hell-bent on consigning the bicycle to the history books, even ripping up bike lanes to accommodate more cars.

But a growing number of cities in the west are doing just the opposite by adopting bike-friendly policies that encourage people to leave their car at home and take the bike instead.

EngagingChina was intrigued to hear on a recent trip to Paris of the Velib initiative, which seeks to turn the idea of renting a bike into something chic, urbane and thoroughly modern.

Velib is not functioning yet, but when it is later this summer, Parisians will be able to pick up a bike at one of the 1,451 intelligent terminals distributed around the city and drop it off at another.

A one-day ticket costs €1 and lets you make unlimited journeys. The first 30 minutes of each journey are free but the cost escalates rapidly for journeys of more than one hour, presumably to encourage people to return the bike as soon as possible and so maximise turnover.

Despite the low-tech image, behind Velib is a sophisticated IT system, supplied by IBM. This collects payment — you must insert a bank card to unlock a bike from a terminal — and monitors over 300,000 bicycle movements a day.

So that the movements can be controlled in real time, the system will also manage the rounds of 300 maintenance technicians, each equipped with a mobile device linked to the back-office system. The technicians will receive information on the state of bicycle terminals, the availability of the bicycles, their locations and their needs for technical support when a failure has been signalled.

Velib.gifSounds pretty cool and its interesting to note that it's an outdoor advertising company that is behind this project. Presumably JCDecaux has the right to plaster advertising all over the terminals, which look like parking-ticket machines. It is already running a similar scheme, called Vélo'v, in Lyon.

IBM's IT solution has been designed so that it can be adapted to other cities and multi-lingual displays. The potential application to China's car-clogged cities is obvious, although I suspect the car lobby is unlikely to support the idea.

The large army of bicycles on the streets of Chinese cities amazed early visitors from the west when China first opened to the outside world in the early 1980s, But the number of bikes,which once totalled 500m, has plummeted as rapidly as private car ownership has expanded.

Elsewhere on the bicycle front:

  • China is now the global leader in electric bicycles, sales of which reached more than 16m in 2006 compared to 10m a year earlier. Sales of e-bikes are soaring with the emergence of a consumer class with climbing income that's still unable to afford cars. Some Chinese cites like Shanghai discourage motorcycles and motor scooters as dangerous and polluting, so giving non-polluting electric bikes a big advantage. There are hundreds of manufacturers of electric bikes but it looks like their export potential is limited. For the immediate future, then, the e-bike seems destined to remain a uniquely Chinese phenomenon. This story in charts the development of e-bikes in China.

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