From one billion cars to one billion bicycles


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Bike path in New York City

In 1993, when I was 10 years old, my family took a trip to Beijing, where the large boulevards provided us with an image that seemed reversed: bicycles everywhere, punctuated by the occasional car. The young and old rode nearly identical two-wheeled machines to get where they needed to, and the internal combustion engines were sidelined, weaving their way through an army of peddlers. At that time, writes Kristof in 1988, 76% of road space in China’s capital was taken up by bicycles – and one in every two people owned a bicycle (that’s 5.6 million bikes for 10 million people).

Fast forward 20 years: Beijing’s traffic patterns are impressive for a very different reason. Cars now clog the streets, slowing down rush hour traffic to 9 miles per hour, and bicycles have all but disappeared. Chinese consumers have overwhelmingly embraced the car - from 1990 to 2000, their number increased from 1.1 to 6 million (a 445% leap). The hunger for cars is growing; China is now home to over 78 million cars, of which 6.5 million are in Beijing alone.

But the car explosion is not only China’s doing – the world’s citizens are driving 1 billion cars now. Car ownership is highest in the United States, where there are a mere 1.3 people per vehicle, compared to China’s 6.75. What is interesting about China is that its cities experienced a mode shift from bicycles to cars in twenty years. And now cities all over the world are aiming to do the opposite.

Why? Because mass motorization has implications for our health, environment, and cities. Car-centered cities have worse air pollution and higher asthma rates, and recent work shows that urban residents’ exposure to air pollutants in developing cities can be orders of magnitude higher than those for high-income countries. Cities built for cars in developed nations – especially those in the US – are facing obesity epidemics that are directly linked to sedentary lifestyles. Road transportation is a huge and growing source of greenhouse gases (transport emits 25% of CO2 from global energy use; 75% of these come from roads). Cars are dangerous: road traffic injuries are expected to be the 3rd leading cause of death worldwide by 2020.

But the risks incurred by cyclists and pedestrians depend on the city in which they commute. Car-centered cities create a vicious cycle: they are more dangerous for bikes, so people drive more. In American cities, residents use cars for 66% of trips under one mile and 89% of trips 1-2 miles long; these trips could be easily taken by bicycle.

A virtuous cycle can be created by cities that encourage cycling, and facilitate leaving one’s car behind. A few cities whose recent efforts to reimagine the role of the bicycle in transporting its citizens – through policy measures suggested here – highlight the wisdom of Beijing’s boulevards 20 years ago.

Better facilities for cycling (Copenhagen, Denmark): Here, every road for cars has a parallel road for bikes, with a traffic signal. 55% of city citizens commute by bicycle each day, ten times higher than in Portland, the most bicycle-friendly American city.

Traffic calming (Berkeley, USA): The city is traversed by bicycle boulevards with periodic speed bumps and road blockages, slowing and discouraging cars.

Restrictions on motor vehicle use (Bogotá, Colombia): Bogotá is the innovator of the car-free street – the Ciclovía. Every Sunday, 70 miles of major streets are closed to cars and open to pedestrians and cyclists.  The city is also home to the Transmilenio, and Pico y Placa, a program in which only cars with certain license plate numbers are permitted to transit in the city on a given day.

Urban design sensitive to needs of non-motorists (Los Angeles, New York City and Washington DC, USA): Neither LA nor NYC is particularly bike friendly – but they have begun to invest in bicycles. NYC’s current transportation commissioner has doubled the miles of bike lanes. LA has taken a cue from Bogotá, starting its own CicLAvias. Washington has greatly expanded the reach of its bike lanes, and hosts a successful bike share program; New York will unveil one soon.

Rigorous traffic education of motorists and non-motorists (Amsterdam, Netherlands): All children are taught safe walking and biking practices by the age of ten; all car drivers are taught how to safely drive alongside bicycles. Bicyclists caught running lights are fined.

The bicycle, though the most commonly used form of transportation in the world, is being rapidly replaced by the car. This shift is an active choice, by people and cities, and whether we choose to seek inspiration from Beijing in the 1980s or Beijing in the 2010s - whether we build cities for 1 billion cars, or for one billion bicycles – will profoundly shape the health of our citizens and life in our cities.

Photo: Sintana Vergara


Sintana Vergara

Environmental Engineer and Junior Professional Associate

June 29, 2012

Nice post. I too had a similarly fascinating experience as a child in the Bicycle Kingdom. And ever since all of the development, whether or not the shift to cars was necessary, I've always said to myself that the transportation policy ranks as among the greatest mistakes in human history. Perhaps a bit overstated, but it represents a tremendous missed opportunity for China to serve as a positive example for the (developing) world - to develop and modernise in a unique, creative and sustainable manner. But, no, they took the easy way out and so we'll never know if an economic powerhouse based on the bicycle is possible or what it's impact on the world would have been.

JP Carvallo
July 03, 2012

Great post Sintana, thanks!
I was wondering if you could share your impressions on what is the underlying explanation of bike-to-car shift in Beijing. Was there governmental support for cars? Industry lobby? Were there significant benefits for the users that shifted?
I see some sort of "tragedy of the commons" here, where each individual assumes its better choice is to shift to a car, but when everyone does so it does not show to be the best strategy. Do you think governments in other developing economies should anticipate this, instead of just correcting?

Sintana Vergara
July 03, 2012

Great questions. I know little about the causes of this shift, but I can surmise, based on what I have read and what has occurred in other places.

1. Strong governmental support for cars. As citizens buy cars, they consume more goods (good for the economy) and they appear of modernity. This article in the China Daily touches upon the government’s sanctioning of the rise of the automobile: A more recent article suggests that the government may be having second thoughts about its embrace of the car:…

2. Individual enthusiasm over cars. Absolutely it is ‘easier’ in the short term to drive a car to work than it is to ride your bicycle. As long as there aren’t too many other drivers, you can get where you are going faster and without expending your own energy. This easiness relies on massive investments in infrastructure to build paved roads and annex city land for parking spaces. Many cities have done this, effectively making driving the easier thing to do, in the short term. (Of course, as more and more people drive, it becomes harder to drive, and to bike, and to breathe clean air). Additionally, in many places (such as China), the bicycle is seen as a vehicle for the lower class.

On your last point, yes, I think that governments should anticipate this and invest in long-term transportation planning based around creating a city that grants its citizens mobility, a clean environment, and public health. It’s much more difficult to turn a car-centered city into a transit-oriented one than it is to start creating a transit-oriented city in the first place.

Evan Lovett-Harris
July 06, 2012


Thanks for sharing this! Sad to see such a tremendous cultural shift in China away from the bicycle.

On the positive side, a recent reuters article found here:… shows that members of Gen Y are less inclined to drive cars compared to previous generations. We're much more likely to choose to live more centrally, and bicycle or take public transit.

In cities throughout the world that have been inspired by Bogota's Ciclovía, there's a de-stigmatization of cycling. It's actually hip to ride. From Guadalajara, MX to Oakland, US bicyclists reclaim the streets for short periods of time, and people from all sectors of society join together to remember what it's like to ride like they're still kids.

Sintana Vergara
July 06, 2012

Hi Evan, thanks for your comment and for the very hopeful article! I share your feeling that bicycling is experiencing a boom - cities and their citizens are choosing alternative forms of transport, for health, economic and environmental reasons. The irony is that many developing cities had more sustainable forms of transport - like in Beijing, which was a bike kingdown - and are rapidly adopting the car, while cities that are now car-centered are looking for ways to move towards bicycles and public transit.

I also agree with you that the youth are leading the way!

July 06, 2012

When China was shifting from bicycles to cars, it was and is still considered a shift towards growth and prosperity. While US has over 750 cars for 1000 people, China has so far only 60 cars per 1000 people.

Imagine the world when Chinese and Indians reach American standard of living. Can the world afford and sustain that level of living?

The big cities should promote cycling in the cities and encourage people to use cycles for short trips. There should be no taxes on production and sales of bicycles. A small battery operated bicycle should be developed to make it more acceptable for longer distance travel.

Michelle Chang
July 09, 2012

Thanks, Sintana, for a fascinating and well-written read! I think you bring up a number of very compelling models across the developed and developing world where bicycle adoption is being promoted. I am particularly interested at the urban/city planning policy that a city develops and tries to implement, specifically, around transportation, roads, and land use. I think that many of these policies dictate how successful cities can be at moving away from private vehicles and towards public transportation and/or bicycle adoption. Are you aware of case examples across the globe where a policy heavily promoting public transportation also increases bicycle usage? Can they go hand-in-hand to generate quicker impact for each other?

Sintana Vergara
July 18, 2012

Another bold move by progressive Denmark to promote transport by bicycle:…

Sintana Vergara
July 10, 2012

Great comment, Michelle. I think public transit and bicycling are often viewed as separate concerns, when there are great synergies between the two. Two cities come to mind that have done a good job of adopting more holistic transportation planning. (There are many others!)

San Francisco adopted a "Transit First" policy in the 1970s that aimed to increase public transit, walking, and bicycling as commuter options. By tackling all three, they noted that creating better bike facilities ON public transit - such as racks on buses and trains - and better bike lanes TO public transit would help them meet their goals.

Bogota, Colombia, has an extensive network of bike paths that have been integrated with their bus rapid transit system, so that you can bike and park your bike at bus stations.

I think that you are right on that these alternatives to car riding can (and should) go hand in hand, but I don't think they necessarily do. Better subway systems and bus routes are not necessarily conducive to more walking and biking, if these are only safely accessible by car.

January 15, 2013

Great article, I think cities are shifting more to public transportation and to bicycle use. I just wanted to make a quick comment about Bogota. While the Pico y Placa tried to diminish the use of cars, it actually did the opposite. Currently the car industry in Bogota has grown really fast, making traffic a nightmare for Bogotanians. since people can't use their cars certain days, they decided that buying a new car was the best answer. In six years the car industry jumped from 666.000 cars to more than 1,270,000. It also harmed the lower classes that depended on their car to work. It was a good idea in the beginning, but I wouldn't use it as an example for other cities. However, I think Bogota is doing a great job with the Ciclovia, and the bicycle paths that are being built.

January 16, 2013

Having lived in or around amsterdam my entire life, i can tell that the supremacy of the bike ( 60% of trips in the centre are by bike) has come about also because the county of amsterdamtook a series of décisions and actions prioritizing bikes over the last 20
years. No overnight thing. Some measures, certain ly at the start, were politically. Controversial. But when people had had the chance to adapt, the comfort and ease won. Shopkeepers could stay in existence in the center, and the streetlife became more and more lively and thriving, in the good sense. So next measures were welcomed, not controversial.
But it started with political will. Or guts if you want.
And the economy of amsterdam hasn't suffered over these 20 years......

February 04, 2013

Another city with a problematic relation to cars and bicycles is Rome.
A great blog on the subject is following: