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On the night of March 19, 2012, dozens of cars queued for fuel at a gas station near the West 3rd Ring Road in Beijing. Before gas prices raised at midnight, Xu Danyang was lucky to refuel his car. “The gasoline price rose nearly 0.5 yuan per liter,” he lamented. “What bad news! I guess I’ll have to drive less in the future.”
That night, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) of China announced the spike in gas prices would be greater than any previous adjustment since 2010. Afterwards, both unleaded and diesel retail prices surpassed eight yuan per liter in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai. As China transforms into a motor-driven society, surging fuel prices urge consumers to seek fuel-saving and greener substitutes in the auto era.
In 2011, China topped the world in automobile production and sales. The same year, it also became the planet’s largest energy consumer and greenhouse gas emitter. The latest statistics show that by the end of 2011, the country’s civil automobile population has increased more than 2,000 times to 105.78 million over the past few decades, from a figure of only 50,000 in 1949. As the country embraces the auto era, however, pressures arise as well as benefits.
According to officials from the NDRC, along with the constant increase of oil consumption in recent years (the country’s dependence on imports exceeded 56 percent in 2011), the rise of international oil prices would undoubtedly affect the domestic market. Besides energy shortages, China’s fast-growing automobile population also brings tremendous pressure to the urban environment and roads.
On March 17, 2012, Beijing was once again engulfed in heavy fog, resulting in the delay or cancellation of many flights to and from Beijing Capital International Airport. Behind the increasing frequency of fog and haze is the rocketing concentration of fine particulate matter (PM2.5). “PM2.5 in Beijing is mainly composed of volatile organic compounds,” explains Chinese Minister of Environmental Protection Zhou Shengxian. “That means automobile exhaust contributes the largest proportion of the city’s PM2.5.” Currently, about one-fifth of Chinese cities are suffering from severe air pollution, and automobile emissions are one of the primary culprits for urban PM2.5.
Energy pressure, air pollution, and gridlock have become unbearable challenges in the automotive era. The automobile makes modern life infinitely more convenient and comfortable, but at the same time its negative impacts drive demand for low-carbon lifestyles.
During a recent three-day holiday, Wang Yichen, a Shanghai resident, took a romantic getaway with his girlfriend to Hangzhou, where they personally experienced the city’s well-known public bicycle sharing program. Riding two rented bicycles, they circled West Lake while enjoying its poetic spring scenery. “It’s perfect to travel West Lake by bike since walking is a bit exhausting and driving is too fast,” Wang remarked. “Moreover, biking allows us to enjoy a greener and more romantic holiday.”
In May 2008, Hangzhou became the first Chinese city to launch a public bike rental service, which allows residents and tourists alike to easily rent bikes through self-service terminals. Hour-long rides are free. Each additional hour costs only one yuan each, for up to three hours. After that, each additional hour costs three yuan. Public bikes sprinting down local lanes and streets have become part of Hangzhou’s cityscape. In 2011, as home to the world’s largest bike sharing program, Hangzhou was cited by the BBC as one of eight best cities in public bicycle services, along with Paris, Washington D.C., Bombay, London, Mexico City, Melbourne, and Dublin.