Charles Komanoff


China's Bicycles Are Us

An unpublished op-ed essay written in June, 2004

By Charles Komanoff

Back when China was still an exotic destination, one of the most exotic things about it, for Americans, was the fact that people got around on bicycles. Lately, however, we've been hearing that China seems eager to "disappear" its two-wheelers and replace them with automobiles.

To hasten this automotive Great Leap Forward, the authorities in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities have begun closing major thoroughfares to bikes. "The bicycle is beginning to fade from the streets of urban China," one observer noted in 2000, "marking a small, although not insignificant, transformation of Chinese life."

Whether the transformation of quiet, free- flowing bicycle boulevards into cacophonous, gridlocked streets is a minor matter for China is debatable. What is beyond question is that replacing China's half-a-billion human-powered bicycles with oil-burning automobiles will have profound consequences for the entire planet, and particularly for the United States.

In fact, we are already seeing some of these consequences, in this year's run-up in gasoline prices. Even after last week's 6 cent-a-gallon price drop, U.S. pump prices are almost 50 cents a gallon higher than a year ago. There are other factors, from attacks on oilfields in the Mideast to the ongoing mania for gas-guzzlers in the U.S., but the burgeoning Chinese automobile fleet is unquestionably part of the picture.

There are now 65% more cars in China than there were four years ago, and they consume an additional 400,000 barrels a day of gasoline and diesel fuel. This increase accounts for one-tenth of the rise in world oil usage since 2000 -- not a game-breaker, but enough to keep prices high, particularly when markets are jittery to begin with. Had Chinese auto use grown only half as much, the world crude price might well be a few dollars a barrel lower, and gasoline as much as a nickel a gallon cheaper.

But that's just the beginning. In its headlong pursuit of the U.S. development model, China has 500 million bicycles to get rid of. Replacing just half of them with cars, even with hybrid models averaging 40 miles a gallon, will swell world oil demand by more than 4 million barrels a day -- enough to soak up half of Saudi Arabia's current production.

To be sure, China is only embarking on the same transformation the U.S. underwent a century ago, from bicycle and trolley to the Model T, from urban street to suburban cul-de- sac.

Progress, it's called, but at a cost. The leading causes of premature death in America are linked to over-reliance on cars: cancer and respiratory failure from smog, injuries from road-traffic accidents, and heart disease, stroke, and diabetes from physical inactivity. China is now sliding down the same slope, with three times as many road deaths as the U.S., and a marked increase in obesity.

And of course there's climate havoc to contend with. If Houston's rate of gasoline use is duplicated across China, world carbon dioxide emissions will rise by one-quarter. That will doom any effort to limit greenhouse gases.

There may still be a chance to avert this calamity. Even with the meteoric growth in car use, 95 percent of trips in Chinese cities are still made via transit, cycling and walking. If driving can be held below "tipping" levels, the efficiency, safety and dignity of these modes might yet be preserved, creating a virtuous cycle in which the car is only one option among many.

What should China do? Tax gasoline and driving to reflect their environmental and social costs. Restore Beijing's bicycle boulevards. Enact and enforce full, Euro-style traffic-law protection for cyclists.

What can Americans do to help? Start giving China a working model of prosperity that is also sustainable. Aim higher than "green" cars. De- subsidize autos and suburbs with stiff taxes on driving and gasoline. And, finally, get out of the car and ride a bike.