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Bike-sharing schemes: Flourishing or running riot?

Almost one hundred Chinese cities, fromBeijing to Lhasa, now have bike-sharing schemes. The bikes, clad in variouscolours, have GPS trackers and can be unlocked simply by scanning a barcode onthe frame with your phone. Some can even be reserved via a phone app.

Zhu Dajian, director of the SustainableDevelopment and Urbanisation Think Tank at Tongji University, toldchinadialogue that ten years of efforts to promote public bicycle schemes bythe Chinese government had had little effect, yet these new schemes, run byprivate firms, have taken off in a mere year and have already reduced thenumber of car journeys and congestion.

China may be creating a new model oftransportation that could be adopted globally.

Rapid investment has seen the number ofbikes on the road rocket and spread over the course of the year. But this hasalso caused problems. Bikes are often parked haphazardly and infringe on urbanspaces, while the manufacturing of the bikes is causing pollution.

Green travel?

A number of bike-sharing firms haverecently published data which, they claim, shows the schemes provide urbanresidents with a convenient and low-carbon travel option.

In April, Mobike, known for its red liveryand the first of the new bike-sharing schemes, worked with the Tsinghua UrbanPlanning and Design Institute to produce the first report on the impact ofbike-sharing schemes.

According to that report the total numberof car journeys in the 50 cities in which Mobike operates fell by 3% since thescheme launched in 2016 (in Shanghai in April and in Beijing in September). InBeijing, 44% of the company’s bikes are used near subway stations; in Shanghai,the figure is 51%.

Mobike users travelled an incredible 2.5billion kilometres in total in one year, saving the equivalent annual emissionsof 170,000 cars. These figures were based on Mobike’s user data and 100,000survey responses.

Shortly afterwards Ofo, Mobike’s biggestcompetitor (its bikes are yellow) and up-and-comer Bluegogo (its bikes areblue) published their travel data from the first quarter of 2017.

As with Mobike, Bluegogo’s report showed aclear drop in short car journeys when its bikes became available. In Beijing,journeys of less than five kilometres fell by 3.8%, and in Shanghai by 3.2%. Infact, 90% of bike-sharing trips are less than five kilometres.

The arrival of bike-sharing schemes alsosaw congestion drop by 7.4% in Beijing, and by 4.1% and 6.8% in Guangzhou andShenzhen. Contributors to the report included Gaode Maps and research from theChina Academy of Transportation Science.

Although the competing companies may beoverstating their data, Zhu Dajian says there is no question that the number ofshort car journeys has decreased.

In just a year the percentage of bike journeys has gone from singlefigures to double digits,” says Zhu.

Daizong Liu, China transport programmedirector at the World Resources Institute (WRI), told chinadialogue thatalthough the WRI does not currently have data on bike sharing, the use of thesebikes in Chinese cities is already at phenomenal levels.

You can tell just by looking at the number of people riding thesebikes that the number of car journeys must have fallen,” he says.

Running riot

While urban residents may now find gettingabout the city easier, the rapid expansion has not been without problems. Thebikes can be left and collected from anywhere in the city which is causingheadaches for municipal authorities.

Media reports from Shenzhen told of overten thousand bikes “invading” a beach during a recent public holiday, with anentire road taken over by parked bikes.

Sharedbikes take over a popular promenade spot in Shenzhen (Image: SouthernMetropolis Daily)

There have been similar scenes in Hangzhou.Wu Weiqiang, a professor at Zhejiang University of Technology, said in aresearch article that if the four bike-sharing firms working in Hangzhoucontinue to expand at current rates, they will have almost 330,000 bikes in thecity by the end of year, adding to the tens of thousands already present aspart of a separate government scheme.

This will mean the market in Hangzhou,which has a permanent population of nine million, will be saturated.

According to a China Central Televisionreport there are currently twenty bike-sharing schemes competing in Beijing,with almost one million bikes.

Zhou Zhengyu, head of the city’stransportation commission, said at an event marking Beijing’s Bicycle Day inApril that the city has 700,000 shared bikes. It is as yet unknown if this istoo many for a population of 20 million, as there are no authoritative figureson how often bikes are used. According to the Beijing Youth Daily the Xichengdistrict of Beijing has banned people from leaving shared bikes on ten majorroads.

NieRiming, a researcher at the Shanghai Institute of Finance and Law, thinks that the rise of shared bikes is in large part caused byfailures of urban and transportation planning.

Government-led public transport can’t meet [people’s] needs, soshared bikes have become popular. The market is filling a gap, and thegovernment should look at how to improve, rather than just worry about badlyparked bikes or excessive numbers.”

There’s also a lack of standards for where bikes can be left, or anybarriers to entry to the market, meaning a disorderly market,” said LiuDaizong. “Shared bikes have developed rapidly and the government is bound toneed time to react and to research appropriate policies – but I’m sure theauthorities have acquired experience through regulation of the ride-sharingsector, which will allow for more effective management of shared bikes.”

Liu added that citizens have a right tochoose how they use the roads, and as more and more people take to shared bikesthe model of urban transportation management – currently built around cars –will inevitably change.

Zhou Dajiang told chinadialogue that“behind the over-expansion of the various bike-sharing schemes lies excessivecompetition between companies.” According to one report, Ofo and Mobike havereceived a number of rounds of funding, with investments of up to three billionyuan. The companies are aiming to snap up market share by rapid expansion.

In April, Mobike announced it had put atotal of 3.65 million bikes on the road and was manufacturing 100,000 more aday – 45% of the global total. Ofo says it will have 10 million bikes availableby the end of the year.

Environmental worries

The bicycle is a zero-emission form oftransport. But the sharp increase in the manufacturing of bicycles is causingenvironmental problems.

An environmental NGO, the Institute of Publicand Environmental Affairs (IPE), has found that some makers of these bikes,such as Fuji-ta, one of Tianjin’s biggest bicycle manufacturers, are gettingsuch large orders from Ofo that they are running at full capacity and failingto take environmental issues into account.

Some facilities have failed to upgradewaste gas treatment facilities, or have failed environmental protection checks.The manufacturer of magnesium alloy wheel hubs for Mobike has a poorenvironmental record – it has directly released dust and toxic substances intothe air.

Ding Shanshan, head of the IPE’s greensupply chains project, told chinadialogue that they have found breaches ofrules, such as the construction of factories before approvals have been given.

The bike-sharing companies are rushing to get market share and havea huge demand for bikes. If they want to get a certain number of bikes onto thestreets of a certain city in the next week, the manufacturer has to workovertime and add extra production lines – and there’s no time to installenvironmental equipment or carry out environmental assessments.”

An employee with Flying Pigeon, awell-known Chinese bicycle brand, said that bike-sharing orders mean thatproduction lines are working at full capacity even in traditionally quiet timesof the year, with extra staff taken on and output expanded. Monthly output hasrisen from 100,000 bikes to 400,000.

On May 10th and 26th, IPE wrote to twobike-sharing firms, asking them to consider the environmental damage themanufacture of their bikes might be having, to encourage problematic suppliersto make improvements and offer public explanations, and to build suppliermanagement systems. But Ding Shanshan said neither Mobike or Ofo haveresponded.

A Greenpeace study found that Ofo usesdisposable batteries in its smart locks, in order to save money. But this willbe harmful for the environment.

Encouraging norms

The Chinese government has alreadyexpressed support for the bike-sharing sector. When soliciting opinions onrules for bike-sharing, the Ministry of Transport said that internet-based bikerental schemes are to be encouraged to develop and improve service levels, sothese bikes will help improve urban transportation and reduce emissions fromtransportation. However, it is still unclear what actual rules will be applied.

Zhu Dajian says that the problems arisingin the sector cannot be solved by the companies alone and that government, thefirms and consumers need to work together.

He says that these schemes, invented inChina, have created a new model for the urban public bicycle. Earlier schemesin Europe required bikes to be returned to fixed stations – but the Chineseversion is smarter and bikes can be left anywhere. Also, this is a new modelfor market provision of public services.

But he also pointed out that the market isapproaching saturation in major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou andShenzhen, the next step will be to limit bike numbers and increase frequency ofuse. Zhu admits that the government will need a new approach to deal with thisphenomenon. But if bike sharing can grow soundly and replace an urbantransportation model based around the car, the entire world will benefit fromChina’s example.

China’s bike-sharing firms are alreadyworking on international expansion. Ofo has 30 million users across China,Singapore and the US. Mobike says it is at work in over fifty cities in Chinaand aboard, and will cover 100 around the world by the end of the year. Thebike sharing revolution is already breaking out of China’s cities and goingglobal.

China dialogue |  Reporter: Liu Qin, Zhang Chun | 2017-06-09


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