The city of Hangzhou in eastern China was once described by the Italian explorer Marco Polo as the, “finest and most splendid city in the world”. Today it is once again on the map thanks to a range of initiatives to cut air pollution and increase the livability of the city.
Indeed, many cities across China have suffered from the effects of air pollution. To remedy the situation, China introduced an Air Pollution Action Plan in 2013 to reduce dangerous particulate matter (PM) 2.5 levels.
For the city of Beijing, the solution has been to drastically eliminate the use of coal: the city closed its coal-fired power stations and banned people in surrounding areas from burning coal for heat. The city’s efforts were so effective that, while in 2013, Beijing ranked as the 40th worst city for PM 2.5 by the World Health Organization, it ranked in 187th place in 2018. As part of nationwide efforts to curb air pollutants, other cities in China followed suit and dramatically reduced their PM 2.5 levels.
The new 2018-2020 Three-year Action Plan for Winning the Blue Sky War, announced in July 2018, is the successor of the original air pollution action plan. It calls for a reduction of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide by more than 15 per cent compared with 2015 levels by 2020.
Hangzhou’s bike-sharing success
The bustling city of Hangzhou, home to nearly 10 million people, is world-famous for being home to the high-tech industry, including the world’s leading e-commerce group, Alibaba.
However, like other cities in China, Hangzhou has had to tackle the scourge of air pollution. Since most of the Hangzhou’s PM 2.5 pollution comes from vehicle emissions, Hangzhou city authority started China’s very first public bike-sharing scheme. Launched in 2008, the primary purpose of this initiative was to a provide a convenient public service for short journeys in the city. They ended up with two knock-on benefits: less traffic and a reduction in air pollution.
In 2017, when the number of bikes hit a peak, a total of 10 companies, including commercial ones, operated more than 882,000 bikes. The number of bike trips is estimated in the range of hundreds of millions since 2008.
Furthermore, the integration of the public bike-sharing scheme with other public transport in the city has increased its attractiveness and ease-of-use. “This healthy transport has made our city better and its air quality is good,” says Tao Xuejun, general manager of the Hangzhou Public Bicycle Service.
China was known as the “Kingdom of the bicycle” in the 1980s. With economic progress, many people moved to motorized forms of transport. The re-emergence of the bicycle in Hangzhou since 2008 may have been somewhat unexpected but its contribution to helping reduced air pollution is undeniable.
In 2017, the Hangzhou bike-sharing scheme won an award from the Ashden charity which said that “the combination of convenient and free bicycles, well separated bicycle lanes and good public transport appears to have led to reduced use of cars and their associated congestion, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions”.
“Hangzhou is a great example of how cities can introduce initiatives like bike sharing to encourage people to get out of their cars and reduce air pollution,” says Rob de Jong, Head of UN Environment’s Air Quality and Mobility Unit. “We really need to encourage city governments and planners around the world to design cities for people, and not cars – leading to safer and cleaner living spaces”.
Switching to non-polluting vehicles an international priority
Tackling air pollution by removing cars from the road is the focus of UN Environment’s Share the Road Programme. The Programme is centered around the concept that everyone begins and ends their journeys as pedestrians, and in cities, some people rely almost exclusively on walking and cycling. Yet, investors and governments continue to prioritize road space for cars. To make the switch to more eco-friendly means of transport, UN Environment supports governments and other stakeholders in developing countries to systematically prioritize and invest in infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists.
Bike-sharing schemes have not been without criticism, however. As the number of bicycles grew rapidly across China, many found their way to massive dumps, as companies went bankrupt because of insufficient demand. Vast piles of impounded, abandoned or broken bicycles have become a familiar sight in many big cities.
Hangzhou itself has had to cut the number of bikes. Cities around the world are learning from this example and ensuring they have full control over the number of bikes released into the city within their bike-sharing schemes.
Other initiatives in Hangzhou to reduce air pollution
Conscious of the risk air pollution poses to health, Hangzhou has implemented many other measures to improve air quality. It expanded its metro system to reduce traffic and invested in thousands of electric buses and taxis.
The city also developed an innovative battery-swapping mechanism for the its electric taxi fleet, allowing one electric taxi to travel for 230 kilometers on two to three fully charged batteries every day. Hangzhou’s goal is to reach a total fleet of 1,000 electric taxis, ultimately aiming at a zero-emission taxi fleet.