Bei­jing is no longer a cy­clist's par­adise

The Pak Banker - - OPINION - Noah Feld­man

Adecade ago, Bei­jing seemed like a cy­clist's par­adise. True, there were no ded­i­cated bike lanes, but that was be­cause two-wheeled, man-pow­ered ve­hi­cles owned the road. In what seemed like a scene from an en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist's (slightly so­cial­ist) fan­tasy, scores of bik­ers would wait pa­tiently for the light to change, then em­bark en masse for their des­ti­na­tions. By con­trast, bik­ing around my home­town of Bos­ton seemed faintly crazy -- an in­vi­ta­tion to be­ing sideswiped by one of our fa­mously con­sid­er­ate drivers.

To­day all that has been turned on its head. When I went to rent a bike upon my ar­rival in Bei­jing last week, peo­ple looked at me as though I were mad. As I tooled around the old neigh­bor­hoods near the For­bid­den City, I was of­ten the only non­mo­tor­ized thing in sight. There were bike lanes, all right, but they were pop­u­lated only by mo­tor­bik­ers and the oc­ca­sional fel­low in­trepid West­erner. On the back streets, I saw a few older Chi­nese cy­clists, wear­ing ex­pres­sions of thor­ough dis­gust. Mean­while, Bos­ton, like lots of other U.S. cities, has be­come a rea­son­able place to bi­cy­cle. I still wouldn't rec­om­mend it to the faint of heart, but as long as you bike de­fen­sively, you feel like a mem­ber of a for­ward-look­ing tribe of change agents.

The story of China's trans­porta­tion rev­o­lu­tion is an al­le­gory of un­ex­pected con­se­quences and per­verse in­cen­tives. It's also an in­vi­ta­tion to think about what hap­pens when mar­kets take hold in an en­vi­ron­ment un­ac­cus­tomed to them.

Start with the good news: As China has got­ten rich, its peo­ple (at least in the cities) have gained ac­cess to goods that their grand­par­ents never dreamed of. Cars are an amaz­ing in­ven­tion, which is prob­a­bly why they haven't changed much in the cen­tury since they be­gan to be mass-pro­duced. You can go far­ther, faster, drier and warmer in them than in any form of trans­port since the dawn of hu­man­ity. What's more, you can go wher­ever you want -- a ter­rific aid to free choice and in­di­vid­u­al­ism.

Yet one ef­fect of pro­lif­er­at­ing cars is that they worsen street pol­lu­tion. Ex­haust is far from the only con­trib­u­tor to Bei­jing's now-leg­endary smog -- coal-burn­ing steel plants and other fac­to­ries on the ur­ban pe­riph­ery do their part -- but on the street, it's the out­put of tailpipes burp­ing their low- qual­ity gaso­line that hits you in the face. Af­ter three hours on the road, my throat was burn­ing with acrid smog. I felt like I had smoked a pack of cigarettes. And all this was on a day when the rate of par­ti­cles smaller than 2.5 mil­ligrams was only about 135 per mil­lion -- much lower than the 600 ppm that Bei­jing has reached in ex­treme con­di­tions.

The bad air qual­ity drives peo­ple into cars, which makes the air qual­ity worse. And once you have a car, you can drive to work from greater dis­tances. Com­muter traf­fic not only kills the air but also clogs the roads. Traf­fic has got­ten so bad that the mu­nic­i­pal­ity has in­sti­tuted a "drive ev­ery other day only" rule.

Peo­ple who can't bike with­out chok­ing, and are banned from driv­ing, throng to the sub­ways. Rid­ing two of the main lines, 1 and 10, at rush hour, I found them clean and ef­fi­cient. And, oh yes, more crowded than any train I have ever been on in any city on Earth. Eti­quette hasn't yet solved the "how many peo­ple can fit in this car?" prob­lem. At one point, I saw sev­eral ea­ger cus­tomers take a run­ning start and fling them­selves into the train like spe­cial-teams block­ers head­ing down the foot­ball field. Or ac­tu­ally, I felt it. The im­pact re­bounded through the train to the point where I mo­men­tar­ily won­dered if some­one might be crushed. Get­ting out wasn't any bet­ter be­cause no one wants to make way, know­ing how hard it will be to re­mount. The Bei­jing sub­way will have to be dras­ti­cally ex­panded, but I can eas­ily imag­ine pre­fer­ring to sit in traf­fic with glass and steel be­tween me and my fel­low hu­mans.

That, of course, is the point: Driv­ing is the op­ti­mal in­di­vid­ual choice, given the con­di­tions cre­ated by ev­ery­one else's in­di­vid­ual choices. The mar­ket prefers cars. More mar­ket, more cars. And the ef­fect of the free mar­ket in trans­port choices is a dis­as­ter in the mak­ing. Ev­ery­one I saw in Bei­jing had a smart­phone (they work in the sub­way!). And ev­ery English speaker I met had an ap­pli­ca­tion that pro­vided two num­bers: the U.S. Em­bassy's es­ti­mate of the air qual­ity, and the Chi­nese government's counter-es­ti­mate. In­for­ma­tion is won­der­ful: the higher the num­ber, the bet­ter ad­vised you are to take a car and stay out of the air. Reg­u­lat­ing the trans­porta­tion mar­ket dis­torts in­di­vid­ual choices. Bike lanes in Bos­ton's nar­row streets slow down cars that are al­ready crawl­ing. They en­rage the Bos­ton driver be­cause they con­strain his God-given free­dom to cut the line of traf­fic from the side like a mod­ern Paul Re­vere evad­ing Bri­tish pa­trols on his way to Lex­ing­ton. They ben­e­fit the few on bikes, not the many who drive the mar­ket.

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