Jian Gemin, an engineer in Beijing, bikes to work every day. But in recent years, he found that the city, where the number of vehicles just reached 5 million, is becoming less friendly to bikers.
So he applauded a newly-developed online platform (http://www.ourtransport.net ) which collects feedback from residents on cycling conditions in Beijing, and became a volunteer to test its functionality and interface.
The online platform is a pilot created by the Beijing Transport Research Center (BTRC) in collaboration with the environmental NGO Friends of Nature (FON) and technology provider Ushahidi, and with support from the World Bank, as a first step to help improve the city’s cycling environment. Residents can submit reports to it about problems or positive elements of the cycling environment in Beijing via web, smart phone apps, SMS or social media.
"This is an innovative way to collect information from the public," Deng Xiaoyong, Deputy Chief Engineer with BTRC, "unlike the conventional ways of collecting feedback from the public, this platform can reach out to many more people. With this, we hope to contribute to the formulation of green transport policy."
In May this year, 50 student volunteers from Tsinghua University did the first round of testing on the platform on and around their campus.
In October, the platform was opened up for broader testing.
On Sunday, October 21, an event jointly organized by the four project partners brought together 70 volunteers from different walks of life to learn about and test the platform.
The volunteers also discussed ideas on how to make roads safer and more accessible to bikers and shared memories of the good old days for bikers when China was a "Kingdom of Bicycles”.
"As a kid, I used to bike everywhere," said Zhao Liman, one of the founders of Smarter Than Car, a group that promotes bike culture, "but look at the kids now…it is sad to see that much of China’s iconic bike culture is slipping away."
From Monday to Wednesday, volunteers were asked to provide reports on their trip to and from work.
On his way to the office, Jian Gemin biked through sections of road without bike paths, or, even worse, with cars parked in bike lanes. He took photos and submitted a report to the platform.
"This is one of the many frustrations that can lead people to abandon bikes," he commented.
Kong Fanxue, another volunteer, is a manager at a real estate company. On good days she bikes all the way to her company for almost an hour. When the weather is bad, she bikes to the nearest subway station and then transfers to subway.
On her way to work on Monday, an array of high-quality bike racks in front of an office building caught her eye. She uploaded her finding, GPS-coded, to the platform to spread the information. "Bikers usually have difficulty finding good facilities like this to keep their bikes secure," she said. If more and better bike parking can be provided, she is sure that more people would be interested in biking to work.
During the three-day testing, more than 110 reports were submitted to the platform via various channels. All user-generated reports are mapped and visualized, available for others to view and comment on.
Volunteers were also encouraged to post on Sina Microblog (Chinese equivalent to Twitter) about the platform – more than 800 tweets/retweets and 400 comments were recorded.
"Nowadays bike users are a vulnerable group, and if society does not allow them to speak out, they will always be vulnerable," wrote Li Bo, former Secretary-General of FON and a well-known environmentalist in China, on Sina Microblog. Guo Jifu, General Director of BTRC, retweeted the message, adding that "vulnerable groups should have the right to speak out - join the ‘ourtransport’ platform".
After the event, questionnaires were sent out to all participants, asking them to rate the experience and the platform itself.
This, combined with an analysis of the reports received to date, will help lay the groundwork for next steps.
"Clearly there is strong interest among both institutions and individuals in Beijing to better understand and plan for the needs of cyclists," said Ke Fang, Senior Urban Transport Specialist at the World Bank.
As this first technical pilot draws to a close, the Bank and its partners will look for ways to follow up on this work, both in Beijing and hopefully across China