Bike-sharing schemes: Flourishing or running riot?

One year in and bike sharing apps are transforming Chinese cities, but oversight and environmental impacts are a concern.

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

Zhu Dajian, director of the Sustainable Development and Urbanisation Think Tank at Tongji University, told chinadialogue that ten years of efforts to promote public bicycle schemes by the Chinese government had had little effect, yet these new schemes, run by private firms, have taken off in a mere year and have already reduced the number of car journeys and congestion.

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

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

Green travel?

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

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

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

You can tell just by looking at the number of people riding these bikes that the number of car journeys must have fallen.

Daizong Liu, China transport programme director, World Resources Institute

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

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

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

The arrival of bike-sharing schemes also saw congestion drop by 7.4 per cent in Beijing, and by 4.1 per cent and 6.8 per cent in Guangzhou and Shenzhen. Contributors to the report included Gaode Maps and research from the China Academy of Transportation Science.

Although the competing companies may be overstating their data, Zhu Dajian says there is no question that the number of short car journeys has decreased.

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

Daizong Liu, China transport programme director at the World Resources Institute (WRI), told chinadialogue that although the WRI does not currently have data on bike sharing, the use of these bikes in Chinese cities is already at phenomenal levels.

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

Running riot

While urban residents may now find getting about the city easier, the rapid expansion has not been without problems. The bikes can be left and collected from anywhere in the city which is causing headaches for municipal authorities.

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

There have been similar scenes in Hangzhou. Wu Weiqiang, a professor at Zhejiang University of Technology, said in a research article that if the four bike-sharing firms working in Hangzhou continue to expand at current rates, they will have almost 330,000 bikes in the city by the end of year, adding to the tens of thousands already present as part 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 Television report there are currently twenty bike-sharing schemes competing in Beijing, with almost one million bikes.

Zhou Zhengyu, head of the city’s transportation commission, said at an event marking Beijing’s Bicycle Day in April that the city has 700,000 shared bikes. It is as yet unknown if this is too many for a population of 20 million, as there are no authoritative figures on how often bikes are used.

According to the Beijing Youth Daily the Xicheng district of Beijing has banned people from leaving shared bikes on ten major roads.

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

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

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

Liu added that citizens have a right to choose how they use the roads, and as more and more people take to shared bikes the 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 excessive competition between companies.”

According to one report, Ofo and Mobike have received a number of rounds of funding, with investments of up to three billion yuan. The companies are aiming to snap up market share by rapid expansion.

In April, Mobike announced it had put a total of 3.65 million bikes on the road and was manufacturing 100,000 more a day – 45 per cent of the global total. Ofo says it will have 10 million bikes available by the end of the year.

This story was originally published by Chinadialogue under a Creative Commons’ License and was republished with permission. Read the full story.

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