China just might lead the world back to the bi­cy­cle

The Myanmar Times - - News | Views - ADAM MIN­TER news­room@mm­times.com

IT wasn’t so long ago that rivers of bi­cy­cle com­muters coursed through Chi­nese cities. As a means of nav­i­gat­ing ur­ban roads, two wheels couldn’t be beat. They were cheap – and China was poor – and Chi­nese cities were com­pact enough to al­low for con­veyance by pedal power alone. As re­cently as 1986, 63 per­cent of Bei­jingers used a bike as their pri­mary mode of trans­porta­tion.

By 2013, how­ever, those num­bers had plum­meted to 14pc. Na­tion­wide, bi­cy­cle us­age de­clined be­tween 2 and 5pc an­nu­ally be­tween 1990 and 2010.

The rea­son for the drop-off is no se­cret. Car own­er­ship has surged in China over the last 30 years as Chi­nese en­joy their new pros­per­ity and look for more ef­fi­cient and com­fort­able ways to nav­i­gate their ev­er­more-sprawl­ing cities. Un­for­tu­nately, over the last decade that surge has clogged Chi­nese me­trop­o­lises with traf­fic and chok­ing clouds of smog. With roads be­com­ing less nav­i­ga­ble by the day, ci­ti­zens, en­trepreneurs and the Chi­nese govern­ment are look­ing for al­ter­na­tives.

Bi­cy­cles – and in par­tic­u­lar, bike-shar­ing pro­grams, a utopian con­cept first tried (un­suc­cess­fully) in Am­s­ter­dam in 1965 – have resur­faced as one of the most promis­ing op­tions. Ac­cord­ing to Bloomberg, in just the last few weeks China’s two biggest bi­cy­cle-shar­ing ser­vices landed US$200 mil­lion in fund­ing, giv­ing one of them – two-year-old, Bei­jing-based Ofo – a $500 mil­lion val­u­a­tion. Didi, China’s biggest ride-shar­ing com­pany, has in­vested $100 mil­lion in Ofo and is ex­plor­ing whether to fold the ser­vice’s 70,000 bikes and 500,000 daily rides into its in­dus­try-lead­ing app.

Hum­ble bi­cy­cles would seem an un­likely tar­get for China’s tech in­vestors. Not only are two-wheel­ers un­likely to in­cor­po­rate much in the way of new tech­nol­ogy, but they con­tinue to have a rep­u­ta­tion as a back­ward form of trans­porta­tion that up­wardly mo­bile con­sumers have out­grown. In 2004, in an ill-ad­vised stab at mod­erni­sa­tion, Shang­hai banned bi­cy­cles from down­town to make the city more com­fort­able for cars. The at­ti­tude be­hind the move was con­cisely ex­pressed in 2010 when a con­tes­tant on a Chi­nese dat­ing show told her blue-col­lar suitor, “I’d rather cry in a BMW than smile on a bi­cy­cle.” The state­ment went vi­ral.

But as China’s traf­fic and pol­lu­tion have wors­ened, the car’s sta­tus has started to take a hit and trans­porta­tion plan­ners have re­dou­bled their ad­mirable com­mit­ment to pub­lic tran­sit. At the same time, they’re faced with a prob­lem com­mon to their peers around the world: The far­ther a com­muter lives from a bus or metro stop, the less likely that com­muter is to use pub­lic trans­port. (Gen­er­ally, com­muters will walk far­ther for trains than buses.) This dis­tance is known as the “first-mile/ last-mile prob­lem” and solv­ing it has be­come a pri­or­ity world­wide.

In China, bike-shar­ing is an im­me­di­ate fix. The Dutch orig­i­na­tors of the pro­gram started with an ide­al­is­tic con­cept: to leave bikes around Am­s­ter­dam that any­one could use, for any pur­pose. Un­sur­pris­ingly, many of those bikes were stolen, and the pro­gram ended. The next gen­er­a­tion of bike-shar­ing pro­grams didn’t ar­rive un­til the mid-1990s, when sys­tems were de­vel­oped that re­quired iden­ti­fy­ing mag­netic-stripe cards to rent a bike. Vari­a­tions on those sys­tems now op­er­ate in hun­dreds of cities around the world.

They’ve taken off with re­mark­able speed in China, where the to­tal num­ber of shared bikes out­num­bered the world fleet of share bikes out­side of China in 2015. The cities of Hangzhou, Taiyuan and Shang­hai op­er­ate the world’s first, se­cond and fourth biggest bike-share pro­grams, re­spec­tively. The scale is as­tound­ing: Hangzhou Pub­lic Bi­cy­cle, which was es­tab­lished in part­ner­ship with the lo­cal govern­ment in 2008, now op­er­ates as many as 78,000 bikes at more than 2000 sta­tions, with plans to ex­pand to 175,000 bikes by 2020. On av­er­age, users make 240,000 trips per day.

Pre­lim­i­nary data in­di­cates that China’s be­lea­guered com­muters are will­ing to give the bikes – and pub­lic tran­sit – a try. A 2010 study of Hangzhou’s sys­tem showed that mem­bers had a higher rate of auto own­er­ship than non-mem­bers, while 30pc had in­cor­po­rated the ser­vice into their com­mute. In other words, many of China’s car own­ers are will­ing to opt for a more en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly mode of trans­port if it’s read­ily avail­able to them.

China’s well-cap­i­talised bike­shar­ing com­pa­nies are bet­ting that many more com­muters will make the same choice. To help them along, Ofo equips bikes with a QR code that users scan to pay and ride (Ofo ren­tals run $0.15 per hour, af­ter a $15 de­posit). Shang­hai’s Mo­bike is out­fit­ting bikes with GPS units so they don’t have to be re­turned to a sta­tion, but can be left any­where and are easy to find. Elec­tric and pedal-as­sist bi­cy­cles, al­ready pop­u­lar in China, will soon be a part of the fleets.

For three decades, mod­erni­sa­tion in China has meant em­u­lat­ing car-cen­tric coun­tries such as the US. Bike shar­ing won’t be the fi­nal word on China’s ur­ban mod­erni­sa­tion, once driver­less cars be­come a more vi­able op­tion for solv­ing the last-mile prob­lem. But it does put the coun­try at the lead­ing edge of a form of trans­porta­tion it was on the verge of aban­don­ing. With luck, it’ll show other cities and coun­tries that the past can be a way for­ward, too.

– Bloomberg View Adam Min­ter is based in Asia, where he cov­ers pol­i­tics, cul­ture and busi­ness.

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