Bike-sharing services

Why China’s bike-sharing boom is causing headaches

Illegal parking, vandalism and traffic violations are rife in cities designed more for cars than bicycles

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 April, 2017, 10:02am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 December, 2017, 12:33pm

China’s bike-sharing boom has put millions of new bicycles on city streets now mainly designed for cars, and that’s causing problems in a country previously known as the “kingdom of bicycles”.

The mainland is now home to more than 40 dockless shared-bike start-ups whose smartphone apps give people access to a network of bikes for as little as one yuan (14.5 US cents) an hour. The charges are paid via digital wallets and GPS-tracking devices on the bikes mean they can be left anywhere at the end of a ride.

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The biggest operator, Ofo, has 2.2 million bikes in 43 mainland cities, according to Reuters.

Mobike, the second-biggest, officially launched its first service, in Shanghai, just a year ago. It now has more than 1 million bicycles on the mainland in 33 cities, according to Xinhua, and plans to expand to more than 100 cities, at home and abroad, by the end of the year.

But while the bike-sharing apps are convenient for users, the industry is giving many local governments daily headaches. Problems such as illegal parking remain unanswered, and some experts say that’s largely because many cities were not designed to be bike-friendly.

Shenzhen Bay Park has taken the lead to ban share bikes during public holidays after it was littered with tens of thousands of them last Monday during the Ching Ming break, according to the Southern Metropolis News. The park said on Friday that it would continue to enforce the ban during future holidays.

Yang Fengchun, an associate professor at Peking University’s school of government, said piles of bikes dumped outside subway stations were now a common sight because many city planners had never thought to include parking facilities nearby.

“From about 20 years ago, China has turned its automobile industry into a pillar industry,” he said. “Therefore, you see Chinese cities today are built for the convenience of cars. Cities are very unfriendly for bikes.”

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To address the problem of illegally parked and misplaced bikes, operators reward users who report them with app credits.

Self-declared “bike hunters” have also formed social media groups where they can share information.

The organiser of one group, museum director Zhuang Ji, said it now had more than 2,000 members and that one member had reported 69 misplaced bikes in one day.

He said “new cities” spawned in the past decade as a result of China’s rapid urbanisation were more affected by the shared bike plague because their city planners had only designed road networks for the benefit of car drivers.

“There are not enough pavements and bike lanes,” he said, “Even in many upscale neighbourhoods, where pavements were built they were built at the expense of bike lanes.”

Zhuang’s group recently inspected 983 Ofo bikes in six cities – Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Wuhan and Chengdu – and found that 19 per cent were damaged, 15 per cent were unlocked, 12 per cent had been stolen for private use and 2 per cent were being ridden by children under the age of 12.

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The 22 young children spotted using Ofo bikes were all in Shenzhen, while illegal use was most prevalent in Guangzhou, where 55 per cent of bikes inspected had been stolen for private use.

In a video of the inspection posted online, a group member in Guangzhou said many bikes had been dumped in alleyways, “essentially becoming city trash”.  

State media have reported that a bike repair centre in Beijing now receives more than 400 damaged bikes a day, with a backlog of more than 4,000 bikes waiting to be repaired.

Zou Jianyu, a shared bike user in Guangzhou, said he was seeing more and more shared bike riders on the city’s highways and streets, many of them children and some only in primary school.

“They don’t know how to follow the basic traffic rules, which makes road safety all the more challenging for everyone,” he said.

The government says children under the age of 12 should not be allowed to cycle on streets, but state media have reported that many primary school students around the country now cycle to school.

On March 26, an 11-year-old boy died at a crossroads in central Shanghai after a coach ran over the Ofo bike he was riding, sparking public debate about who should be held responsible for such accidents.

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Ofo bikes are secured with combination locks, which can be defeated, and the company said it was working with the local government to make them more secure in order to prevent underage children from riding them.

A Mobike spokesman said children under the age of 12 were barred from registering accounts on its app and so were unable to use its bikes. The app unlocks a bike after a QR code on the lock is scanned.

Yang said local governments had been slow in finding effective measures to address the problems caused by shared bikes and needed to make cities more bike-friendly if the industry was to succeed.

“Cities are keen to implement dockless shared bikes because they really help relieve traffic congestion,” he said, while warning that such schemes could “soon be met with resistance from the automobile industry”.