BEIJING — Perhaps nothing evokes modern-day China so much as the sight of hordes of bicyclists pedaling their way down dusty city thoroughfares. But if East Xisi Street is any kind of bellwether, that image may be rolling slowly toward oblivion.
The short but busy street just west of the Forbidden City has become downtown Beijing's first where officials have banned bikes, which have been muscled aside to smooth the way for automobiles.
And Ms. Duan, for one, is not pleased.
"Of course it's inconvenient," she snapped, sweeping a gloved hand in a wide arc to describe the detour she now takes on her 70-minute bike ride to work, even as automobiles wheeled blithely onto East Xisi behind her.
But "since the Communist Party came to power, they tell you what to do and what not to do," said Duan, 40, a worker in a medical equipment company who declined to give her full name. "People have gotten used to this kind of autocracy."
Municipal authorities here say the 7 a.m.-to-8 p.m. bicycle ban, issued last week after six months of study, is necessary to flush out the four-lane street for the thousands of buses, taxis and private cars that beetle down East Xisi every day to gain access to major boulevards. The ban "will be expanded to other areas at an appropriate time," state-run media reported.
Opponents, however, fear that it may be the first faint clang of the death knell for one of China's most ubiquitous symbols at a time when Beijing's congested streets and polluted air can least afford it.
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So many cars already clog the Chinese capital that a cab ride of 10 minutes during off hours can take four times as long during peak periods. Major crossroads are studies in chaos, with pedestrians darting in front of oncoming cars, bicyclists weaving in between and motorists charging into intersections at yellow lights. Vehicle emissions combine with factory fumes to make Beijing's air anywhere from two to five times more polluted than that of Los Angeles.
Critics warn that by tipping the balance toward motor vehicles and away from bikes on streets such as East Xisi, China is making a mistake that will cost the environment and economy dearly in the long run. Even as more-developed cities around the world search for ways to rein in cars and promote mass transit and pedestrian-oriented zones such as Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade, China is pushing in the other direction, encouraging car ownership, partly to promote the country's fledgling auto industry.
"The flood of cars has not accelerated our transportation," sociologist Zheng Yefu wrote in an essay published three years ago. "Instead, it has polluted, clogged and poisoned our cities. Massive parking lots have swallowed up our green spaces. The endless expansion of roads has eaten into our city's theaters, museums and parks, and destroyed peace and quiet from the cities to the suburbs. Why must mankind go down this mistaken path?"
Over the weekend, the new bike ban drew a rare, oblique warning from one of Beijing's state-controlled newspapers. In a Sunday editorial, the Beijing Youth Daily, while agreeing that the cars-only decree on East Xisi "is necessary," argued that not establishing a bicycles-only zone somewhere else would be "biased and discriminatory," particularly since most Beijingers still get around on two wheels.
"For a 300-meter [1,000-foot] ban on bicycles, the police and traffic authorities conducted half a year's worth of research and debate," the author of the editorial, Ma Shaohua, wrote. "I hope that, at the same time as these experiments produce results, they will take fairness into consideration."
Here in Beijing, bicycles outnumber automobiles 8 to 1 and have been the main mode of transport for residents since the 1950s.
During the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, a bike ranked as one of the "three bigs," a trio of possessions that every Chinese household sought to own (a sewing machine and a wristwatch rounded out the list). Some women refused to marry suitors who could not guarantee these essentials.
But the capitalist reforms of the '80s triggered an explosion of automobiles that even the Communist government has had trouble keeping pace with. In just a few years, the number of motor vehicles in China has surged from a relatively small number to more than a million.
In the process, bicycles have steadily lost ground in the battles for both space on Beijing's streets--originally designed for rickshaws and carts--and the hearts and minds of Chinese consumers.
Cars now routinely zoom down the narrow alleyways, or hutongs, of the city's residential neighborhoods, ideal for bicycle shortcuts but often barely wide enough to accommodate a compact coupe, let alone the Jeeps and luxury sedans popular among the rich. On major routes such as Beijing's Second Ring Road, bicyclists find themselves forced to hug the curbs even in the lanes supposedly dedicated to them, which motorists regularly appropriate.