The NGO Trying to Make Biking Cool in Beijing

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In Beijing, where air pollution threatens to take years off your life, some people have no interest in riding a bike if they can possibly afford a car, which is a shame because rediscovering the tradition of cycling could help reduce the smog that chokes the city. So the solution for bicycle and clean air advocates is to try to make biking cool in Beijing.

In her story on the "de-bikification of Beijing," Atlantic Cities' Debra Bruno pointed to research by Jinhua Zhao, of the University of British Columbia, who found that "bicycle use in Beijing has dropped from about 60 percent in 1986 to 17 percent in 2010. At the same time, car use has grown 15 percent a year for the last ten years." Some people love their cars because the cars symbolize arrival in the middle class, Jinhua said.

So groups like Smarter Than Car, an NGO, want to make bikes hip. "Smarter Than Car organized its first Beijing Bike Week in March, setting up a post in a luxury shopping mall surrounded by Ferrari, Aston Martin, and Maserati car dealers. The group showed movies about biking, ran a bike polo match, and organized a kind of scavenger hunt on bikes called an alleycat race," Bruno writes. The problem for Smarter Than Car is that those events aren't hip all by themselves.

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What made alleycat races and bike polo cool in the United States was the hipness of the people who created them: Bike messengers. Ever since New York City messenger Nelson Vails won a silver medal in the 1984 Olympics and Kevin Bacon wowed us with his track bike freestyling in 1986's Quicksilver, through the Real World's Puck in 1994 and the rise of track bikes in the mid-2000s, bike messenger culture has held a subcultural allure. 

In the absence of that built-in allure, Smarter Than Car will have to do a lot of the heavy lifting to make the bike hip. It's making progress: China Radio International pegged alleycat racing as "The New Extreme Sport" after March's Bike Week attracted 150 riders. And a small alleycat scene has already been establishing itself in Beijing for the last three years or so. The first annual fixed-gear alleycat ran through Beijing in 2009, and the third installment happened last August. 

As Bruno points out, one Beijing subculture that has already embraced the bike again is the expat community, many of whom seem to see it as a charming throwback as well as a practical alternative to crowded subways and hard-to-catch cabs. That allure hasn't been lost on Smarter Than Car founder Shannon Bufton. "It’s like Venice and gondolas. They go together, Beijing and the bike," he told Bruno. Now he's just got to convince a few million Beijingers.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.