Tidy park­ing key to shared bikes’ ex­pan­sion

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - COMMENT - Cui Shoufeng The au­thor is a writer with China Daily. cuishoufeng@chi­nadaily.com.cn

China’s phe­nom­e­nal bike-shar­ing busi­ness is set to take a strate­gic twist at home. While Chi­nese bike-shar­ing com­pany Mo­bike rolled out the first of 750 bikes in West Lon­don on Tues­day, Bei­jing’s trans­porta­tion man­age­ment au­thor­i­ties have called a halt to such dock-less, hire-on-de­mand bikes in the city, where some 2.35 mil­lion “shared” bikes are be­ing run by 15 com­pa­nies.

Bei­jing is among the 12 cities that have sus­pended ad­di­tions to the ex­ist­ing fleet of shared bikes — for ob­vi­ous rea­sons. The cap­i­tal now has one bike for every 14 res­i­dents, way more than what it needs to pro­mote green pub­lic trans­porta­tion. With more pub­lic places and pri­vate res­i­dences build­ing up fences to keep chaotic park­ing at bay, shared bikes, hailed as a “last-mile” so­lu­tion, are of­ten seen piled up on pave­ments even near bus stops.

Hav­ing sur­vived the “re­tal­ia­tory” at­tacks by driv­ers of mo­tor tri­cy­cles, a once-pop­u­lar yet il­le­gal last­mile choice car­ry­ing com­muters to the near­est bus stops or sub­way sta­tions, shared bikes now face an­other mo­ment of truth. By the end of July, 70 bike­shar­ing com­pa­nies had rolled out a to­tal of 16 mil­lion bikes to serve the more than 130 mil­lion reg­is­tered users, ac­cord­ing to the Min­istry of Trans­port. This means the prom­ises of the bike­shar­ing com­pa­nies to fix what is wrong — from pave­ment clut­ter to over­sup­ply — may go un­ful­filled.

The ban im­posed by the 12 cities on ad­di­tional shared bikes could, iron­i­calseas ly, be an op­por­tu­nity for the bike-shar­ing op­er­a­tors, big and small, to shift their fo­cus to other cities, although soak­ing up their ex­cess ca­pac­ity will not be easy.

Lead­ing the com­pe­ti­tion are Mo­bike and Ofo that made their foray into over­seas mar­kets last year. Ofo’s dis­tinc­tive yel­low bikes have hit the roads in eight coun­tries out­side China, in­clud­ing Sin­ga­pore, the United States and Ja­pan, and the com­pany said it aims to roll out 20 mil­lion bikes in 20 coun­tries by the end of the year. The am­bi­tious ex­pan­sion is not only about com­pe­ti­tion, though, be­cause the tac­tic of over­whelm­ing ri­vals with in­creas­ing num­bers of bikes may come to a stop should more Chi­nese cities put a cap on the num­ber of bikes in ser­vice.

Which begs the ques­tion: Are over­seas mar­kets the ideal des­ti­na­tion for the over­sup­plied shared bikes in China?

Mo­bike and Ofo are right to run their tri­als in densely pop­u­lated cities such as Lon­don and Sin­ga­pore. Their over- op­er­a­tions, how­ever, are un­likely to ex­pand rapidly enough to ab­sorb the ex­cess ca­pac­ity in China. Ex­tra ship­ping and main­te­nance costs, lo­cal ri­vals and the al­most in­signif­i­cant early mar­ket shares mean it would be un­wise for the com­pa­nies to bet on over­seas ex­pan­sion.

So the main bat­tle­field will be at home where any mis­step could be the Achilles’ heel of ser­vice providers. Bike­shar­ing com­pa­nies should draw a les­son or two from the fact that the bike­shar­ing ser­vice, though in its early stage of de­vel­op­ment, is al­ready near sat­u­ra­tion in the Chi­nese mar­ket. So to sus­tain, if not to ex­pand, their global op­er­a­tions, the com­pa­nies have to work out smarter ways to en­sure the shared bikes are not parked wrongly and do not cause in­con­ve­nience to pedes­tri­ans and driv­ers.

As of yet the com­pa­nies are not ca­pa­ble of solv­ing the park­ing prob­lem, which is the key to their sur­vival. It is coura­geous of them to ven­ture out. But their over­seas des­ti­na­tions, of­ten away from down­town and other rel­a­tively crowded parts of a city, are not well served due to man­age­ment dif­fi­cul­ties. So for Chi­nese bike­shar­ing op­er­a­tors, their tech­no­log­i­cal ad­van­tages, such as “geo-fenc­ing”, GPS track­ers and the abil­ity to gen­er­ate tremen­dous traf­fic data, will make lit­tle dif­fer­ence if they con­tinue to be locked in the game of num­bers in­stead of try­ing to solve the park­ing prob­lem.

ZHAI HAIJUN / FOR CHINA DAILY

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