Support for bicycle mass transit in China may hold lessons for other countries

As nations struggle with the health consequences associated with physical inactivity—5.3 million deaths per year, according to a 2012 study published in Lancet and led by Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) researcher I-Min Lee—they may gain insight from China’s longstanding support for bicycling, which can provide an affordable way to get exercise.

Anne Lusk, research scientist in the Department of Nutrition at HSPH, compares the history of bicycling in China with that of the U.S. and the Netherlands in an article in the winter 2012 issue of Harvard Asia Quarterly, the professional academic journal of Harvard University’s Asia Center. Lusk has more than 30 years of experience researching and consulting to help communities develop comfortable, safe bicycling environments to motivate people of all ages and incomes around the world to bicycle. She was quoted March 8, 2013 on boston.com on plans for a cycle track in downtown Boston.

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Bicyclists ride side-by-side on wide, tree-lined cycle tracks in Hangzhou, China.

In her article—which looked at bicycling in China, the U.S. and the Netherlands around 1890, 1920, 1949, 1970, and currently—Lusk described how over the years the Chinese government set aside road space, that generally is more than double the 6- to 8-foot width of typical bicycle-exclusive cycle tracks in the U.S., and funding for a bicycle mass transit system that continues today. China now has miles and miles of wide tree-lined cycle tracks, separated from sidewalks and roadways by barriers that allow cyclists to ride side-by-side and talk—thus, the concept of “social cycle tracks.”

“Of daily activities, bicycling is more beneficial than walking because of increased energy expenditure,” Lusk wrote. “Despite bicycling’s risks, design solutions in the form of safe, low-pollution-exposure, and social-bridge bicycle environments allow bicyclists to achieve health.” The article was written with support from the Harvard Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. It is one of several papers on bicycling in China being written by Lusk and students at HSPH.

Read the Harvard Asia Quarterly article (pages 16-27)

Learn more

HSPH’s China Initiative: Applied Research, China Bicycle Study

Bicycling, brisk walking help women control weight (HSPH News)

Biking on cycle tracks safer than cycling in the road (HSPH News)

HSPH Nutrition Source: Measuring Physical Activity