By James Pearson
SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea has installed cycle lanes on major thoroughfares running through Pyongyang in an apparent bid to cut down on pedestrian accidents as more people have the cash to spend on bicycles to get around.
Bicycles are an expensive but popular mode of transport for many in an impoverished and reclusive country where private car ownership, although on the rise, is still rare.
They are often used by women to transport goods to semi-tolerated markets, where one of the most common services sold for profit is bicycle repair.
Concrete paving stones on some long stretches of pavement in the central area of Pyongyang have been replaced by a strip of smooth cycle path marked with white outlines of bicycles, according to photos seen by Reuters.
One image from early July showed a freshly laid bicycle path leading to the towering 105-storey Ryugyong hotel, the uprooted paving stones still on the pavement.
North Korean cyclists are not supposed to ride on urban roads and have for years used an unmarked narrow strip of pavement shared with pedestrians, residents and visitors said.
"This causes a lot of accidents and collisions and as a result people ride slowly and ring their bells very frequently," said Simon Cockerell of Beijing-based Koryo Tours, which takes Western tourists into North Korea.
Pyongyang - the name of the showpiece capital means "flat lands" - is geographically bicycle-friendly, but has in the past introduced and then lifted bans on bikes in the city center.
Cockerell said the number of cyclists in Pyongyang appears to have increased by roughly 50 percent in the past few years, although the thought of riding a bike might be unsophisticated for many image-conscious Pyongyang residents.
"They are not the most common form of transport for the average Pyongyanger, and many people I have spoken to about bikes there - mostly men - have scoffed at the idea that they would ride a bike," said Cockerell, whose company offers bicycle tours of North Korea.
(Editing by Paul Tait)