Smarter Than Car

Interview with Liman Zhao, founder of Smarter Than Car

Interview with Liman Zhao, founder of Smarter Than Car

Since 2010, Liman Zhao and her two partners have been hard at work to keep China’s Bicycle Kingdom alive and well.

Tell us a bit about yourself and Smarter Than Car.

I’m the founder of STC, Smarter Than Car, an organization that I founded three years ago with Shannon Bufton and Ines Brunn. We promote urban mobility by using bicycles. We want to let people know that riding in the city is a better way of going around.

How did Smarter than Car get started?

It’s a funny story. Shannon had planned a surprise party for me one evening. He told all my friends to go to another friend’s place. That night, we realized that most people who came on bicycle all arrived on time while the people who drove were late. They finished work, got in their cars and then got their late–and they hadn’t had time to eat and were all starving. And that make me think that driving the car in the city is the perfect way to show people that driving is not a good way to get around the city. That made us think that we should do something to let people know that they should start using bicycles in Beijing instead of getting stuck in the car. That’s how we got the name Smarter Than Car, because we believe that bicycles are a smarter form of transportation than the car.

What is unique about the bicycle culture in China?

The bicycle culture in China has a long history. I grew up in Beijing, and when I was young everyone rode bicycles to go to work and shop. In the 1980s, Beijing had the highest bike use rate in the country. I think it was 65%. Beijing has really good bicycle infrastructure as well. It is flat and the weather is nice. It does get a bit cold in winter, but for the rest of the year it’s just perfect for riding.

Much has been said about the decline of the Bike Kingdom–what is the bicycle culture in China like today? What do you think about the future of bicycling in China?

I’m still optimistic and that’s why I’m doing this work to promote the use of the bicycle. One of the reasons is that I can see there is no future for cars. China has a big population and in cities like Beijing, the population density is very high. Given the urban conditions and high populations, I think that bicycles should be the way to go. And secondly, I believe it is becoming popular because biking is the new cool thing among young Chinese. You can have a colorful bike; you can have a customized bicycle, so that becomes a personal identity. Plus, riding a bicycle can symbolize that you’re a progressive thinker. I believe that biking will become popular again.

What are the pedal-powered livelihoods?

Right now, there are still plenty of people using bicycles or pedal-powered vehicles in Beijing. That is, the bicycle is a business tool for them. For example, they make deliveries, they transport goods on the back of the bicycles or they provide services from their bike. Another group of people use bikes for transportation, like to go to school, go to work, pick up the kids from school, go shopping and run other errands. In the older section of Beijing, bicycles are widely used, but if we talk about the newly developed area, bike use is not as widespread.

Bicycling for leisure and exercise is on the increase in China, correct? As a new bicycle culture evolves, are pedal-based livelihoods in danger of disappearing?

Cycling for leisure is definitely on its way up, more and more people are taking up bike riding for recreation. I guess this is because people have more money and more time and are thus enjoying leisure and recreation more. But I wouldn’t say that this jeopardizes the bicycle livelihoods. The pedal-based livelihoods are facing a whole different problem which is infrastructure related. Urban planning is not designed well for the bicycle livelihoods. Take the new city block at the center of Beijing: it’s a big block with a wide road and it’s build for automobiles, not for cycling. I think this poses the real danger to bicycle livelihoods, not the fact that more people are taking up cycling for sports and leisure. But I also think that people are taking up cycling for leisure because riding in the city isn’t what it used to me. There are too many cars, the roads are too narrow, the cycling lanes have no protection, and this makes people think, “Oh, it’s better if I ride on the weekend in the countryside where there are no cars driving past me or parked in the bike lanes.” It’s a better experience.

What, then, are the biggest threats to the preservation of the pedal-based livelihoods in Beijing?

One threat is encouraging the use of the automobile in the city. Now automobiles take up the entire road; they park on the side of the road and in the bike lane and they drive everywhere. When there is a congestion, the cars drive in the bike lane and basically leave no room for the cyclists. Riding in the city has become very dangerous because of those vehicles. Encouraging the use of cars is the biggest danger. Another danger is city planning. The new urban planning philosophy is only about the city getting bigger and bigger. Again, the city is designed for people to live really far away and than come into the city by car. The planner does not consider a city as a place where there are businesses, services, residences and commercial buildings. It’s not mixed use. So they develop these huge areas to serve just one function i.e. “only for business” or “only for residences” and people have to move from their residential area to the business area everyday and they’re too far away to get back and forth on bicycles. This, again, doesn’t help encourage people to use bikes. But if the planning changes and they make small areas where the different functions are combined, this will make it easier for people to bike to work, to shop and to get home. And this would encourage people to ride bikes. Because otherwise, people think “Oh my home is so far away from the office—I can’t get there on bike!” And the third threat, again, is government policy. There are a lot of things they could do to protect the pedal livelihoods. For example, many outside offices offer no bike parking. So even if people want to ride to work, there is no parking and a lot of people don’t ride because they say “I have a good bike but I have nowhere to put it and I’m worried it will get stolen.” Plus, they have to put an end to car parking on the bicycle lanes or on the pedestrian paths. This also discourages people from using the bicycle. Another thing involves facilitating the use of foldable bikes. They have to allow people to take foldable bikes in the subway—right now, that’s not allowed. A lot of people use public transport, but when they get out of the subway, they have a long walk to the office. If they could take a bicycle with them or rent a bike, maybe they could ride the bike that last stretch. I think the pedal-based livelihoods should be considered in urban planning because, as I said before, today’s urban planning is designed for cars. The blocks are huge and the roads are wide because the whole thing is designed for cars. So if these pedal powered livelihoods were integrated into the urban planning, I think that would be closer to what people’s life should be. Right now, you go to the office somewhere, spend eight hours there and then you’re out of the office and you’re in the car for another two hours and then you’ve arrived to your residential neighborhood where you sleep and eat. And I don’t see this type of life as natural. It is a modern life, but when you think about it, it’s just not a natural life, it’s really unnatural! You spend most of the time in the office, in the car and then back home. When do you see the sun? When do you see any plants or trees or vegetables? So I think that a new type of urban planning should return to nature and replace this unnatural plan.

It’s clear that the people at Smarter than Car feel passionately about cycling – the use of electric bicycles and the conversion of cargo tricycles to electric motors is becoming widespread in cities like Shanghai. What kind of effect will electric bicycles have on the cycling culture? 

The use of electric bicycles and tricycles is increasing in the city, especially among small retailers. This is because when they have to travel longer distances, electric bicycles and tricycles require much less effort. So use is increasing. This poses some issues for cyclists, though, because all the electric bicycles and tricycles drive on the same road as the cyclists. So this means more accidents. But from what I see, cyclists who ride bikes use them differently than people who use the electric bikes. Right now, the use of the electric bicycle is mainly limited to people doing small business or deliveries—and for commuting. Some people use it for commuting. The classic bicycle, on the other hand, is still considered a leisure or recreation item. It’s also considered cool and no one thinks that about electric vehicles!

The air quality in Chinese cities is notoriously bad – how much does it affect the cyclist’s health, particularly for people who spend their working days on a bicycle? Is it getting better?

The air quality is a major problem and I think it does affect the health of people on bikes, but it is important to note that it affects everyone, not only people on bikes. Anyone who lives in the city is breathing this city air. So many people say, “The air is so bad that I can’t ride a bike,” but even if you don’t ride, you are still breathing contaminated air. Again this is a problem and the government should fix it, meaning they have to reduce the number of cars. It is bad, but it’s bad for everyone, not just bikers.

You did some very interesting research about Beijing Bicycle Livelihoods (www.stcbj.com/en/research), are you doing something specific with this research?

We will present this research to the Planning Department but there is a major lack of coordination at the government level here. There is the Planning Department, but there is no coordination with the mayor, the Transportation Bureau or the other departments. The Planning Bureau can say, “This is the policy that we suggest you implement.” Then the Transportation Bureau says, “OK, we agree and the policeman has to enforce this and that.” So, it’s about coordination and it has to come from the decision and policy makers.

Thanks for your time. Do you have anything you’d like to add?

Everything we do is about helping the government realize that bicycles are the best type of urban mobility, so they take more measures to promote bicycle and encourage people to ride. We hope the government will act soon—and swiftly. That would improve and preserve cycling.