Bikes go full cycle in China as share schemes take off

Beijing Letter: the polluted country gets back on its bikes with smart technology

Commuters on a mix of personal and bike-share bicycles  in Beijing.  Photograph: Gilles Sabrie/The New York Times

Commuters on a mix of personal and bike-share bicycles in Beijing. Photograph: Gilles Sabrie/The New York Times

 

Whizzing along in a phalanx of Flying Pigeon bicycles, surrounded by the rhythmic pedalling of commuters, was one of the giddy pleasures of getting around a Chinese city in those heady days before the private car and the subway edged out the trusty two-wheeler.

From almost a standing start, the capital Beijing saw its automobile population rise from a few thousand to nearly six million in just three decades. The combustion engine choked newly built expressways and old streets alike. The passenger car, the ultimate status symbol, was in. The bike was out.

In the past 10 years, electric bicycles, with their unwieldy, environmentally unfriendly batteries and often careless users, have played their part in making urban cycling an unpleasant and dangerous experience.

But now, the bike is back, and it feels as if it has happened overnight. Bicycle lanes are starting to fill up again with shiny orange, silver, blue and yellow smart bikes zipping along the imperial thoroughfares of the capital.

Beijing, at last, has a bike-share scheme. It’s easy to use. You pick up the bike, scan the code on the back using a smartphone app, and away you go. People love them. Once you arrive at your destination, you leave the bike there. Using GPS or smartphone locations, the next user can find it on the operator’s app.

“I’m so grateful for the smart bikes, because they give me the opportunity to ride a bike again,” said An Hu.

Anger

The two biggest operators, Mobike and Ofo, typically charge between 0.5 yuan to 1 yuan (7 cent to 14 cent) for 30 minutes.

The operators try to cluster the bikes near high-demand areas such as busy intersections, university campuses or metro stations, but since I first wrote about the phenomenon in late January, they have proliferated massively and everywhere you can go you can see these cheerful cycles.

This month Apple chief executive Tim Cook came to Beijing to witness the bike-share phenomenon for himself, visiting Ofo and cycling on one of its trademark yellow bikes.

The biggest is Mobike, whose bicycles are silver and black, with orange wheels, and it has accrued more than 10 million users since its bikes first took to the streets in April 2016 – less than a year ago.

Apple manufacturer Foxconn has linked up with Mobike to ramp up production and will also invest in Mobike.

Inevitably, there are problems, chiefly that government officials are angry about smart bikes blocking pavements, and they have promised new rules by June.

There have been complaints that sometimes the bikes are broken or already in use. And there are technical glitches too. My neighbour’s son has discovered that with one kind of bike, the lock simply opens when you press the button, without the need for an app or smartphone, and he has been cycling without paying for weeks.

Expanding overseas

Drivers complain the bikes clog up the roads, and pavements, but in a city clogged with cars, where so many park with impunity in bicycle lanes and the car-exhaust pollution has made the place damn near unliveable in, it’s easy to shrug off the motorists’ moans.

In terms of the business model, there are about 30 operators who have all paid a small fortune to provide the bikes themselves, and given the low cost of using the bikes, it will take months to get the money back.

Economists say many backers are keen to get in early because they know the industry will inevitably consolidate into one or two big players, and there will be a big pay-out for those bought by bigger competitors.

This has seen hundreds of millions of euro invested in the companies by venture capitalists.

Premier Li Keqiang has praised the smart bike as an example of Chinese innovation, and news the Chinese smart bike is going overseas to Singapore has been met with delight.

“Mobike has landed in Singapore, Mobike is connected to the world!” said Wang Qingzhi, although his companion Annie said: “I hope Singapore people treat their Mobikes better.”

Complaints about financial viability aside, and grumbles about how they are taking up space that should be given to cars, it’s fascinating to see how the smart bikes have captured the imagination.

On a leafy side-street near Ritan Park, a man shows his elderly mother how the bike works, and she is delighted at the prospect of getting out there again.

Now that Beijing has just shut its last coal-fired power station, maybe soon we’ll get the air to match.

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