Bi­cy­cle king­dom

New pri­vately op­er­ated bike-shar­ing pro­grams are hop­ing to reignite the public’s love of two-wheeled travel. LuoWang­shu re­ports.

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - Con­tact the writer at luowang­shu@ chi­nadaily.com.cn

Pri­vately op­er­ated bike­shar­ing pro­grams are hop­ing to reignite the public’s love of two-wheeled travel.

In the years be­fore the open­ing-up and re­form pol­icy that re­sulted in China be­com­ing the world’s sec­ond-largest econ­omy, the main mode of trans­porta­tion was the bi­cy­cle, and footage of mil­lions of peo­ple rid­ing on the roads of ma­jor cities led many out­siders to re­fer to the coun­try as the “King­dom of Bi­cy­cles”.

As eco­nomic growth pro­vided bet­ter wages and higher stan­dards of liv­ing, cars over­took bikes as the most popular form of trans­porta­tion. The coun­try is now the world’s largest auto mar­ket, but the down­side is that roads are grid­locked, lead­ing to longer jour­ney times, and air pol­lu­tion has be­come a press­ing prob­lem.

Now, new­bike-shar­ing pro­grams are hop­ing to rein­vig­o­rate the na­tion’s love af­fair with the bike, re­duce pol­lu­tion, pre­vent snarl-ups, slash com­mut­ing times and help peo­ple to live health­ier lives.

A new twist

Public bike-shar­ing is not new in China. As the num­ber of ve­hi­cles on the na­tion’s roads be­gan to soar in the mid-2000s, aca­demics and ur­ban plan­ners be­gan call­ing for greater use of public trans­porta­tion, and mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ments be­gan in­vest­ing in af­ford­able bike-shar­ing projects. Bei­jing launched its pro­gram in 2011, and now has 800 rental sta­tions with about 50,000 bikes. Wuhan, Hubei prov­ince, and Hangzhou, Zhe­jiang prov­ince, have the high­est num­bers of public bikes in the world, with 90,000 and 60,000 re­spec­tively.

How­ever, users fre­quently com­plain about the time-con­sum­ing ap­pli­ca­tion process and the in­con­ve­nience of lo­cat­ing bi­cy­cle hubs.

“When gov­ern­ment-spon­sored public bikes showed up on Bei­jing’s streets, I used them. But I lost my metro card, which con­tainedmy de­posit and reg­is­tra­tion in­for­ma­tion, and it was so hard to get a newone that I stopped us­ing the bikes,” saidWu Xiao­hui, a 23-year-old dancer in Bei­jing.

Wu’s words struck a chord with Zhang Hui, a mag­a­zine ed­i­tor in Shang­hai, who­has re­cently started us­ing Mo­bikes, a pri­vately owned bike-shar­ing sys­tem: “I have used (gov­ern­ment-op­er­ated) public bikes, but they are not user friendly. At first, I didn’t care forMo­bikes, but I saw a grow­ing num­ber of peo­ple rid­ing them and the stylish shape at­tracted me. I was cu­ri­ous and thought I would try it.”

Reg­is­tra­tion was easy. “There’s no metro card or bu­reau­cracy. As long as you have a smart­phone and a de­posit of 299 yuan ($44), you’re good to go,” the 29-year-old said.

She rec­om­mended the ser­vice to her fam­ily and friends be­cause it pro­vides a cheap, con­ve­nient form of trans­porta­tion — a 30-minute ride costs about 1 yuan.

“I don’t need to pick up or re­turn the bike at a spe­cific sta­tion. In­stead, I can pick up and drop off in any public space as long as park­ing is al­lowed there,” she said.

In­no­va­tive tech­nol­ogy

Mo­bikes, op­er­ated by a startup called Bei­jing Mo­bike Tech­nol­ogy Co, ap­peared in Shang­hai in April and Bei­jing in Septem­ber, en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to cy­cle short dis­tances, rather than driv­ing.

The com­pany is ex­pand­ing rapidly in large cities, and ranks as one of the five most popular free trans­porta­tion and tourism apps on the iPhone Chi­nese app store.

“We want to bring bi­cy­cles back to China’s cities,” said Hu Wei­wei, Mo­bike’s founder. “We are us­ing in­no­va­tive tech­nol­ogy to pro­vide bet­ter ser­vices. Public bike-shar­ing al­ready ex­ists, but we aim to im­prove the user ex­pe­ri­ence by up­grad­ing the tech­nol­ogy.”

he com­pany’s free-float­ing model frees users from the need to find spe­cific drop-off and col­lec­tion points, and a GPS in­stalled in a “smart” lock al­lows them to lo­cate and book bikes in ad­vance. The elec­tric­ity re­quired to power the smart lock is gen­er­ated as the rider ped­als.

De­spite its suc­cess, Mo­bike’s tech­nol­ogy and busi­ness model are not in­fal­li­ble.

The bike’s weight, fixed seats and self­power func­tion re­sults in an un­pleas­ant rid­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for peo­ple un­used to ex­er­cise or who are so tall they have to al­most bend dou­ble to ride. More­over, the sys­tem crashed for sev­eral hours in Septem­ber, and the free-float­ing model has seen bikes stolen or van­dal­ized. Mean­while, some users park in pri­vate spa­ces, leave bikes out­side their apart­ment blocks, or even take them home overnight.

“We are a tech­nol­ogy com­pany. Our prod­uct is not per­fect, but we will use tech­nol­ogy and in­no­va­tive busi­ness mod­els to solve the prob­lems,” Hu said.

On Oct 19, new sil­ver and red bikes, Mo­bike Lite, be­came op­er­a­tional in Bei­jing and Shang­hai. Com­pared with the older ver­sion, the new bikes are lighter and the smart lock is pow­ered by so­lar en­ergy.

Mo­bike has in­tro­duced a credit sys­tem to pun­ish users who break the rules. Credit is de­ducted if a user reg­u­larly leaves bikes in in­ap­pro­pri­ate lo­ca­tions, and the ac­counts of re­peat of­fend­ers are closed.

Zhuang Ji, mar­ket­ing head at the Pow­er­sta­tion of Art, a gallery in Shang­hai, is a vol­un­teer “Mo­bike hunter”, search­ing for “miss­ing or in­ap­pro­pri­ately parked bikes” in his leisure time. SinceMay, he has re­cov­ered more than 200 bikes.

“I worked for the fire de­part­ment for 15 years and I care about so­cial ethics very much,” Zhuang said. He sees Mo­bike as “a com­pany with a con­science” that’s rais­ing so­cial aware­ness: “That’s why I like to help them.”

He is hop­ing that Mo­bikes will con­nect his gallery, lo­cated in a city sub­urb and 1.5 km from the near­est sub­way sta­tion, with vis­i­tors who don’t want to walk or take a taxi.

Greener travel

num­ber of bike-shar­ing pro­grams in oper­a­tion world­wide by 2013, ac­cord­ing to a study by Roland Berger, an in­ter­na­tional busi­ness con­sul­tancy

As economies de­velop, pol­lu­tion levels rise and com­pe­ti­tion for road space be­tween dif­fer­ent types of trans­porta­tion be­comes fierce, mean­ing more ef­fec­tive, greener modes of trans­porta­tion are re­quired, ac­cord­ing to Zhu Da­jian, a pro­fes­sor at the School of Eco­nomics and Man­age­ment at Tongji Uni­ver­sity in Shang­hai.

In a bike-shar­ing study pub­lished in April last year, Roland Berger, an in­ter­na­tional busi­ness con­sul­tancy, con­cluded: “Bike shar­ing is pre­dicted to grow at a very fast pace, open­ing up to its users a newmeans of ur­ban trans­porta­tion.”

Ac­cord­ing to the study, byDe­cem­ber2013, about 640 bike-shar­ing pro­grams, with more than 640,000 bikes, were al­ready in oper­a­tion world­wide, and the mar­ket is ex­pected to grow by 20 per­cent ev­ery year. By 2020, the global mar­ket could be worth as much as $5.8 bil­lion.

“The Mo­bike model is not a re­sult of ra­tio­nal plan­ning by the gov­ern­ment, but a prod­uct of the in­no­va­tive pri­vate sec­tor,” said Gao Fan, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of eco­nomics at Fu­dan Uni­ver­sity in Shang­hai.

Profit is the key for pri­vate com­pa­nies to pro­duce public-ori­ented prod­ucts. If in­no­va­tion brings prof­its, the pri­vate sec­tor will pro­vide goods and ser­vices the public wants, ac­cord­ing to Gao.

“Mo­bike spot­ted the mar­ket’s weak­ness and en­tered it to solve a prob­lem the gov­ern­ment had failed to over­come. The new­model fo­cuses on ex­plor­ing the po­ten­tial mar­ket and it val­ues in­no­va­tion in all as­pects,” he said.

Zhu, from Tongji Uni­ver­sity, said: “Mo­bike’s model up­grades the tech­no­log­i­cal and busi­ness mod­els si­mul­ta­ne­ously to de­velop China’s on-de­mand econ­omy. It has cre­ated a model of free-float­ing park­ing with flex­i­ble and con­ve­nient pay­ment, sup­ported by big data and tech­ni­cal in­no­va­tion. It may even ig­nite a newwave of cy­cling in China.”

av­er­age cost of a 30-minute ride on a Mo­bike

Wang Ze­hua con­trib­uted to the story.

PHO­TOS BY ZOU HONG / CHINA DAILY

Em­ploy­ees of Bei­jing Mo­bike Tech­nol­ogy Co ride the Mo­bike Lite, the lat­est ad­di­tion to the com­pany’s bike-shar­ing ser­vices, in the Haid­ian dis­trict of Bei­jing.

— LUO WANG­SHU

Users can down­load the Mo­bike app on their smart­phone and use a photo ID, such as an ID card or pass­port, to reg­is­ter. Reg­is­tra­tion re­quires a de­posit of 299 yuan ($44), and it takes up to 24 hours for an ap­pli­ca­tion to be pro­cessed.

By Oct 19, Mo­bike had reg­is­tered users in 110 coun­tries and re­gions, but the num­ber of non-Chi­nese users is not known.

Users can re­serve a bike 15 min­utes be­fore us­ing it. The app fea­tures a sim­ple in­ter­face that tracks users’ lo­ca­tions and shows bikes avail­able nearby via in-app GPS.

Rid­ers scan a QR code on the bike to un­lock it, but have to lock the bike man­u­ally when they ar­rive at their des­ti­na­tion. The app cal­cu­lates time and dis­tance— most rid­ers are charged 1 yuan for 30 min­utes— and the app deducts pay­ment au­to­mat­i­cally.

See more by scan­ning the code.

Peo­ple ex­am­ine Mo­bikes at a cre­ative in­dus­try cen­ter in Bei­jing.

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