Shared-bike hunters stalk streets af­ter dark Ran­dom park­ing and other vi­o­la­tions by users of dock­less bi­cy­cles have prompted peo­ple na­tion­wide to take ac­tion

China Daily (Latin America Weekly) - - China - By YUAN QUAN and FU GUANGYU

pose for a group photo af­ter tid­ing up a dozen shared bikes on a Bei­jing side­walk.

By day, Zhao Qi, 23, is an ar­chi­tec­tural de­signer in Bei­jing, but af­ter dark, he is a sea­soned hunter in the con­crete jun­gle. Res­i­den­tial ar­eas are his hunt­ing grounds, his smart­phone is his weapon, and poorly parked shared bikes are his prey.

On find­ing shared bikes that have been parked ar­bi­trar­ily or are block­ing traf­fic, Zhao takes a pho­to­graph and re­ports them to the bike-share providers. Then he un­locks the bi­cy­cles and moves them to a nearby pub­lic park­ing area.

Many Chi­nese bike-shar­ing com­pa­nies have started re­ward­ing hunters with credit and pun­ish­ing vi­o­la­tors with higher fees or bans. Pre­vi­ously, Zhao cor­rected vi­o­la­tions at his own ex­pense.

“I don’t see hunt­ing as a job. I do it be­cause I have an in­ter­est in it,” Zhao said.

About 130 mil­lion com­muters have been us­ing dock­less shared bikes since the in­dus­try took off in China’s big cities in April last year. Mean­while, hunters have also in­creased and now num­ber about 100 na­tion­wide.

Hunters come from all walks of life: re­tirees, housewives, de­liv­ery­men, sur­geons, IT man­agers and col­lege stu­dents.

At first they were fans of Mo­bike, a lead­ing bike-shar­ing com­pany. But some are such keen cy­clists that they can­not abide vi­o­la­tions of the bike-shar­ing rules.

Hunt­ing ad­dic­tion

Zhao, who works un­til 10 pm, cy­cles be­tween his home and the near­est sub­way sta­tion on his daily com­mute.

His own bikes were re­peat­edly stolen — then bike-shar­ing ser­vices launched in Bei­jing. He found the dock­less shared bikes easy to use: open a mo­bile app, find the near­est bike and un­lock it by scan­ning the QR code with a smart­phone. And it never costs more than 1 yuan (15 US cents) for 30 min­utes.

“I reg­is­tered as a user the first day I saw shared bikes on the street,” Zhao said.

But he was frus­trated at the difficulty of find­ing a bike to get home. The app al­ways led him to a res­i­den­tial area where a lot of shared bikes were parked, hid­den or even se­cured with pri­vate locks — so he be­came a hunter.

“Bike shar­ing is a bril­liant idea and I don’t want to see it fail,” he said.

Once he moved a dozen bikes from a pri­vate hous­ing area, draw­ing the at­ten­tion of se­cu­rity guards and passersby. “I’m proud that my ac­tions are al­low­ing more peo­ple to en­joy the con­ve­nience of shared bikes,” Zhao said.

Many hunters are ad­dicted. Some have re­ported more than 10,000 bike vi­o­la­tions in the past year. They spend hours hunt­ing and thou­sands of yuan on flash­lights, power banks for smart­phones and other tools.

“My girl­friend joked that my love of bikes is greater than my love for her,” Zhao said.

Many peo­ple — es­pe­cially those who have im­paired vi­sion or dis­abil­i­ties — praise hunters for keep­ing side­walks clear, but crit­ics say they are med­dling in other peo­ple’s busi­ness and ac­cuse them of be­ing bounty hunters for the ser­vice providers.

Zhao has been ar­rested by se­cu­rity guards who sus­pected he was steal­ing bikes.

“We are not role mod­els. We just want to make the city bet­ter,” said Zhuang Ji, 42, a pi­o­neer of hunt­ing in Shang­hai.

New de­mand

About 70 firms op­er­ate more than 16 mil­lion shared bi­cy­cles in China now and they’re gear­ing up for global ex­pan­sion. They are cred­ited with help­ing com­muters in con­gested cities and pro­mot­ing healthy life­styles.

Ac­cord­ing to Bei­jing’s city trans­porta­tion com­mis­sion, bi­cy­cles ac­counted for 63 per­cent of trips in the 1980s, but that dropped to 17.8 per­cent in 2014. A lack of and il­le­gal oc­cu­pa­tion of bi­cy­cle lanes con­trib­uted to the trend, ex­perts said.

Zhao said bike-shar­ing ser­vices are rein­vig­o­rat­ing de­mand for cy­cling, which has been over­shad­owed by “four­wheels wor­ship” in the past few decades.

Since Au­gust, the gov­ern­ment has set new guide­lines to keep the bike-shar­ing sys­tem on track and avoid ran­dom park­ing. Some cities have built new bi­cy­cle lanes and park­ing ar­eas.

Com­pa­nies have main­te­nance work­ers to move bikes to au­tho­rized ar­eas. They are also work­ing on elec­tronic fences and us­ing real-time data to put bikes where they are most needed.

Zhao has mixed feel­ings about the de­vel­op­ments. Some­times, he is dis­ap­pointed af­ter a slow night of hunt­ing. But he con­ceded: “The fi­nal goal of hunters is to have noth­ing to hunt.”


Bike hunters


Hunters find a clus­ter of shared bikes in a blind al­ley in Guangzhou, Guang­dong prov­ince.

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