I don’t really know how to ride a bicycle. So when Beijing began installing its new public bike-sharing system earlier this summer, my first reaction was visual—to the design and the graphics—rather than any sense of how it may affect my daily commute.
But first, some background: As you may know, traffic in Beijing is bad. Very bad. The subway system is being vastly expanded, but how much that will ease congestion is an open question. For a city that, not so long ago, was famous for streets spectacularly thronged with two-wheeled transport, something could be said of the fact that so much effort is now going into getting people back on bikes. The Chinese capital aims to provide twenty thousand bicycles at one thousand stations by year’s end—and fifty thousand bikes by 2015. (For comparison, there are currently twenty thousand bikes in the Paris Vélib’ bike-share system, while New York is planning ten thousand bikes for its own Citi Bikes).
Whether people will use the program remains to be seen, but what struck me most was the bikes’ no-frills design. Lined up beneath Beijing’s LED-emblazoned façades and supersonic new architecture, the bikes seem straight out of the 1980s, a throwback to some kind of Communist retro chic. Except “retro chic” requires a measure of ironic self-awareness, and what we’re seeing here is the real, earnest thing. Such are the contrasts of hypercapitalist Communist China, and it’s not all bad.
For example, the graphics on the bikes are equally simple: Chinese characters printed in alternating white and red. (Rough translation: “Beijing public bicycle” on the frame; “Civilized transportation / Transportation and technology / Green transportation” on the back wheel cover. Yes, this is a government project.) I could do without the gray “swoosh” graphics on the wheel covers, but at least they’re not soft-drink ads.
Aric Chen is the creative director of Beijing Design Week, and the incoming curator of design and architecture at M+, a museum for visual culture being planned for Hong Kong.
Image: © Adrian Bradshaw/Corbis