Even through Beijing’s nicotine-tinged smog you can make out the multicoloured frames, gliding through the pea soup towards a greener future.

In recent months, an unmissable fleet of fluorescent orange, canary yellow and ocean blue bicycles has hit the streets of urban China as part of a hi-tech bike-sharing boom that entrepreneurs hope will make them rich while simultaneously transforming the country’s traffic-clogged cities.

“We want to solve problems by getting bikes back on to the streets of our cities,” says Li Zekun, the 25-year-old marketing director of Beijing Bikelock Technology, also known as Ofo, one of the startups spearheading this 21st-century transport revolution.

From Shanghai to Sichuan province, bike-sharing schemes are being rolled out on an unprecedented scale in an effort to slash congestion and air pollution by putting a country once known as the “Kingdom of Bicycles” back on two wheels.

Ofo, so named because of the word’s resemblance to a bicycle, has put about 250,000 of its bright yellow bikes to work since late 2015, of which around 40,000-50,000 are in the capital, according to Li.

The Peking University biology graduate says his company, which was founded by five students looking to improve transport options on university campuses, has attracted about 3 million users in cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Xiamen and Guangzhou. Its bicycles make about 1.5m trips each day between them.

Li says his company believes so strongly in a global cycling renaissance that it plans to export its bike-sharing revolution to London, Singapore and Los Angeles.

Beijing’s Ofo to ship 20,000 bicycles to the UK and US

“In the future, we hope people all over the world will be using Ofo’s app to unlock its bikes, anywhere and at anytime,” he says.

“For short journeys, bikes are the best form of transport,” Li enthuses at Ofo’s headquarters, in the Internet Finance Centre, a 26-floor building in western Beijing. “You never know when a bus might come. It might not be easy to find a taxi. Walking might take you too long and tire you out.”

Other startups, such as Beijing Mobike Technology and Bluegogo, are seeking to get in on the act, depositing truckloads of bicycles on pavements and street corners across China.

Li Gang, Bluegogo’s 28-year-old chief executive, says he believes bike sharing will bring “mental joy” to millions as well as boosting their health and fitness levels.

It is his mission “to enable everyone to enjoy the happiness of bike riding”, he says.

“I predict that [...] millions of people will be riding bikes in Beijing every day,” says the entrepreneur, whose firm has 50,000 bikes spread across three cities – Chengdu, Guangzhou and Shenzhen – and plans to expand to a new city every fortnight.

“More people will choose this healthy way to get around so the number of cars on the roads will decrease dramatically and this will really help the climate and the environment,” he says.

In the years following Mao Zedong’s 1949 communist takeover, bikes ruled supreme in China and the Flying Pigeon became one of the country’s most recognisable symbols. But two-wheeled travel began to go out of fashion as China became more open to the world, ushering in decades of economic boom and a high demand for cars.

In 1980, almost 63 per cent of commuters cycled to work, the Beijing Morning Post reported last year, citing government data. But by 2000 that number had plummeted to 38 per cent and today it stands at less than 12 per cent.

Car use, meanwhile, has rocketed. In 2010 China overtook the US to become the world’s largest car market, with 13.5 million vehicles sold in just 12 months. This year, manufacturers expect to sell almost 23 million passenger cars.

That jump from two to four wheels has been music to the ears of international car manufacturers, but it has resulted in gridlock and contributed to a pollution crisis experts blame for hundreds of thousands of premature deaths every year.

According to state media, Beijing has 5.65 million registered vehicles, which annually pump 500,000 tonnes of pollutants into the atmosphere. And with China now waging a high-profile “war on pollution”, cities hope a return to the era of the bicycle can help them clean up at least some of the smog. Transport officials in Beijing are aiming to get 18 per cent of commuters riding to work by 2020.

Public bike-sharing schemes, of which there are more than 500 around the world, have existed in China for about a decade, but the scale on which these private initiatives are being rolled out is unprecedented. Reports in the Chinese media suggest hundreds of thousands of shared bikes have been put into action.

The other factor making China’s bike-sharing boom stand out is the technology. While those sharing bikes in cities such as London must pick them up and park them at docking stations, tracking technology means Chinese users can collect and park their bikes wherever they please.

Mobike’s orange-wheeled bikes have a GPS system that allows users to locate them using a map on the company’s smartphone app. Users of Ofo’s yellow bikes, which cost one yuan an hour to use, unlock them using a combination code sent through its app, and the company keeps tabs on its bikes by monitoring the location of the users’ smartphones.

“It is very convenient,” says Li, who claims an Ofo bike can be ready to ride in about 10 seconds.

Investors such as tech giants Didi Chuxing and Tencent are throwing their weight behind the bike-sharing startups, pumping hundreds of millions of yuan into their operations since the autumn.

A recent story about the budding industry in the China Daily warned of “grave maintenance and management challenges” and the existence of unscrupulous users who damage or disappear with the bikes. Recent weeks have seen reports of stolen bicycles, which are worth up to 3,000 yuan, being sold online. But the China Daily urged commuters and city officials to embrace the attempt to “reinvigorate the nation’s love affair with the bike”.

The Guardian; additional reporting by Christy Yao