China 02 20 12 029

Research News

Study on Bicycling in Hangzhou, China Links Bicycling, Wide Plant-lined Cycle Tracks, and Obesity Control

Though bicycle studies have been conducted in countries including the Netherlands, Denmark, and the U.S. on cycle tracks, gender, bike parking, and the rental bicycle, no study has been conducted in a city where historically most residents know how to bicycle, the community is wealthy enough for many to own cars, and there are superior bicycle features.  Hangzhou, China, has historic bicycle-dedicated cycle tracks that are up to 15 feet wide with parallel landscaped islands between the cycle track and the road that are up to 7 feet wide that contain trees over 40 years old. Hangzhou also has the world’s largest public bike share system, bicycle traffic lights, and bicycle parking sheds.

Anne Lusk, a Research Scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health, and researchers in Hangzhou, China asked middle-class professionals in this unique bicycling city what they used and preferred of 5 routes (roads, cycle tracks, etc.), 5 parking options (shed, etc.), 4 intersection treatments (car traffic lights, etc.), and 2 bicycle types (owned or public).   The study appears online in the June 2014 print issue of the Journal of Transport and Health. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214140514000334

The wide cycle tracks, bike parking sheds, bicycle traffic signals, and public bicycles were preferred.  Women, compared with men, indicated higher preferences for cycle tracks, parking sheds, and bicycle traffic signals. Non-bicyclists and frequent bicyclists preferred the same bicycle facility features.

Lusk commented, “Cities elsewhere do not have all the historic features of Hangzhou but cities could build a test road with the most preferred bicycle amenities and ask residents their preferences.”  She lamented the slow progress in building innovative bicycle facilities. “Technologies are advancing at lightning speed while transportation infrastructure has evolved at the speed of a slow horse.”

In Hangzhou, over half of the participants said they enjoyed biking due to the beautiful surroundings, perhaps due to the wide heavily-planted parallel islands. Almost half did not indicate that pollution made biking unpleasant or difficult. The cycle tracks were wide enough  for two bicyclists to ride side-by-side and still allow other  bicyclists pass. Additional countries, including the Netherlands and Denmark, have wide cycle tracks but without Hangzhou’s wide planted islands as separation from vehicles.

Few used the roads with the cars for bicycling (14.7% men and 10.8% women) and even fewer preferred the roads (5.3% male and 3.0 % female). Though many followed the existing vehicular traffic signals (42.9% men and 45.9% women), they did not prefer these signals (25.7% men and 23.5% women).  Instead, they preferred the bicycle traffic signals (63.7% men and 69.1% women).

In China, 38.5% of the population is overweight or obese.  In Hangzhou, where three quarters of the study population own a car, more car owners were overweight/obese (28.8%) compared with non-car owners (21.0%). The Hangzhou car and non-car owners’ weight may have been less because of their higher education or income but about 96% of the study population indicated they could bicycle and only half indicated they did not bicycle. Participants may have chosen to bicycle because of a policy that does not allow them to drive their car on certain days.  Thus, in Hangzhou, there is no bicycling stigma because most residents could own a car and just not drive that day due to their license plate.  In Hangzhou, they can store their bicycle in a bicycle shed and ride their own bicycle or ride a widely-available public bicycle.  Their turns can be directed by bicycle signals and their route can include wide landscaped cycle tracks.

China 02 20 12 021The Helen and William Mazer Foundation, which funds research on the public health benefits of bicycling, supported this research.  Steve Bercu, a Director of the Foundation, said, “We see the bicycle as a vital tool for the control of obesity world-wide. The Hangzhou study begins to paint a picture of the elements that can lead to the choice of a bicycle over a car for daily transportation, elements such as wide cycle track and the use of lushly vegetated islands to buffer bikes from traffic.” With all the known health benefits of bicycling, perhaps other foundations will come forward to evaluate innovative bicycle environments.

This study demonstrates the international consistency in preferences for cycle tracks, parking sheds, bicycle signals, and rental bicycles while new insights were revealed about the wide heavily-planted cycle tracks.  Duplicating Hangzhou’s bicycle facilities could encourage more people to bicycle, an important consideration due to the many health and environmental benefits.

 

What are the key points/takeaways of this study?

  • Women preferred parking sheds, cycle tracks, bike signals, and public bicycles more than men.
  • Barriers between cycle tracks and roads were a maximum of 7 feet wide with trees over 40 years old.
  • Half indicated they enjoyed bicycling due to beautiful surrounding environments.
  • Hangzou’s cycle tracks, that were up to 15 feet wide, allow for side-by-side bicycling.
  • Because Hangzhou has the best of all bicycle facilities, participants were able to choose their favorite bicycle facility (cycle track), parking (shed), traffic signal (bicycle signal), and private or public bike (liked both).
  •  The participants in Hangzhou who had these bicycle facilities did not indicate that pollution was unpleasant or made biking difficult.

How is this study the same and different from previous studies on the subject?

  • This study shows international consistency in preferred bicycle facilities, specifically cycle tracks, bicycle signals, parking sheds, and rental bicycles.
  • Most studies are written about the Dutch, Danish, or American bicycle facilities but Chinese cities have a history of providing extremely wide cycle tracks that also uniquely have wide planting strips between the roads and the cycle tracks.
  • Though three quarters of the participants in this study owned a car, only half indicated they did not bicycle.
  • Other studies have looked at bicycle signals but in Hangzhou the participants were able to rank their preference among a variety of intersection types.
  • While women have been asked about separation from vehicles (roads, bike lanes, cycle tracks, etc.), this study demonstrated the gender differences in all bicycle features.
  • The people who bicycled more than 3 days per week and the people who biked less or not at all highly preferred the same things (cycle tracks, parking sheds, and bicycle traffic signals).
  • The bicyclists preferred bicycle signals but had to use regular traffic signals because bicycle signals weren’t available on all locations.

Is this a significant finding or an incremental one?

Hangzhou has the world’s largest public bicycle system and historic wide cycle tracks with mature plantings between the cycle track and the road, and, therefore, no other city offers such an opportunity to study preferences.

What are the public health implications?

This study provides evidence about the types of facilities used and preferred that will encourage people to bicycle, important findings due to the many health and environmental benefits.  The most preferred bike features should be installed, if even just as pilots.

Anne Lusk, Ph.D.  AnneLusk@hsph.harvard.edu   617-432-7076w  617-872-9201c
Steve Bercu  bercu@limelaw.com