New privately operated bike-sharing programs are hoping to reignite the public’s love of two-wheeled travel. LuoWangshu reports.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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People examine Mobikes at a creative industry center in Beijing.