Beijing turns to bike shares to help cut pollution

The government of China's capital is moving aggressively to reduce Beijing's infamous smog. Dangerous pollution has plagued the city of almost 22 million people for years. Beijing's leaders recently announced a series of measures, including new subway lines, dedicated roads for buses and more bike lanes.

CBS News correspondent Seth Doane has seen plenty of pollution-busting gimmicks, even cans of "fresh air," a publicity stunt. But Beijing's government is now looking at another way to combat pollution and traffic -- and it's about as low-tech as you can get.

Early each morning Sun Jian prepares -- or, well, braces -- for his commute. The 39-year-old zig-zags through Beijing traffic on his 30-minute journey through this city of more than five and a half million cars.

"It's dangerous," Sun admitted. "Cars and bikes are fighting for space on the road, but what can you do? "

Twenty-eight thousand new cars came onto Beijing streets last year, and to fight the ever-increasing smog and snarled traffic, city planners are looking to the past.

"Riding bikes is a good way to avoid being stuck in terrible traffic," Ouyang Songshou said. "Bikes are totally green and have zero emissions."

Ouyang is with Beijing's transportation department. Across the city, it has installed nearly 1,900 racks filled with rental bicycles. They're free for the first hour, and less than $2 for a day.

The official said the Beijing government is patient about the pace of change.

"It takes time," Ouyang said. "We now have more than half-a-million users in Beijing and we figure every new bike will attract eleven new users."

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Beijing plans to add 10,000 more bikes this year.

There was a time, of course, when China was known as the "kingdom of bicycles".

In 1980, more than 60 percent of commuters rode bikes. By 2000, that number dropped to 38 percent. By 2014, fewer than 12 percent of Chinese commuters rode bicycles. The Communist Party aims to get those numbers back up to 18 percent by 2020.

Beijing was inspired by the success of bike-sharing programs in Paris and Amsterdam, and looked to New York City for tips on adding bicycle lanes. Special lanes are already being built in China's capital to improve safety.

Sun would welcome anything that would make his commute a tad less hair-raising.

"My fantasy is that more bike riders will join me," he said, "and fight for space on the road."

Urban planners here are looking at all sorts of ways to combat pollution. Recently, state media reported that Beijing is looking at developing a network of "ventilation corridors" to get rid of smog. They would link parks, rivers and low-rise buildings to try to improve air-flow.