Within 30 minutes of a truck unloading 100 bicycles onto the footpath near Beijing’s Guomao subway station at 7.30am, they are gone.Snapped up by young commuters who zero in on their target, eyes glued to smartphones. Unlock. Then they’re off and pedalling.
As the weather warms this Beijing spring, swarms of pop-coloured bikes are reclaiming the city’s cycle lanes, prompting cursing from taxi drivers. Stacks of parked yellow, orange and blue bikes spillover downtown footpaths – a long forgotten sight in the former “bicycle kingdom”.
Thirteen years after Beijing ended its bicycle tax and registration rules, heralded then as the arrival of the “car society”, the bike is abruptly back.
Powering the new cycling boom are smartphone apps, and a generation of young Chinese who have become the world’s most sophisticated users of digital payments.
Since September 2016, China’s biggest technology companies and venture capitalists have invested almost US$1 billion ($1.3 billion) in bike sharing start-ups which are now fiercely competing across China.
It is seen as the battle to control the next frontier in the digital sharing economy.
Ofo (1.5 million bikes in 43 cities), Mobike (1 million bikes in 34 cities) and Bluegogo (350,000 in six cities, including San Francisco) are the three biggest names in a crowded field of at least 10.
Apple chief executive Tim Cook visited Ofo’s Beijing office on Tuesday. Mobike expanded to Singapore the same day, and wants to be in 100 cities by the end of the year.
The companies say their apps have hit the sweet spot of convenience – technology has freed bicycle sharing from the shackle of having to return the bike to a dock.
The bike can be parked wherever the user’s journey ends, ready for the next commuter to unlock with a smartphone, and pay a small fee through digital payment.
Shared bikes discarded by commuters rushing to work on Wednesday morning in Beijing’s CBD. Photo: Sanghee Liu
Two of the companies, Mobike and Bluegogo, use GPS to track the bikes.
Mobike says it runs the world’s largest Internet-of-Things network. GPS can remotely detect if a bike is broken, and also hotspots where more bikes may need to be added, or more parking is needed.
But its not just about the technology, say the young Chinese behind the companies.
“In the past decade Chinese cities were built around cars and became more like car parks. But people have realised if everyone is behind the wheel, the air pollution was getting worse,” says Mobike’s head of communications Huang Xue.
Bikes made up half of Beijing’s transport in the 1990s, but had since fallen to 10 per cent of trips.
Xue says Mobike wants to get the world back to using sustainable transport.
“It is a solution not only meeting unmet demand, but unleashing the potential of greater demand. People who have not ridden bicycles for decades, since university, are back on bicycles.”
Data shows that of the 400 million trips taken on a Mobike, the typical ride is 1 to 3 kilometres, often between home and the subway, or the subway and work. There is another peak at lunchtime.
Bikes are active through the night. Late-night drinkers returning home after midnight, but also low-paid migrant workers using the bikes when they knock off shifts as cleaners, for example, after public transport has shut down.
The boom has drawn recent Chinese media coverage of bikes being stolen, dumped in rivers or up trees.
This week, a Beijing district government introduced rules to stop bike sharing companies unloading bikes on the city’s famous Chang’ An boulevard which runs past Tiananmen Square. It restricted riders to particular lanes.
Xue says it wasn’t surprising, and Mobike is in close contact with city government offices, responding to their concerns and seeking to gently guide rider behaviour by sending out flash alerts.
Bluegogo has a credit score system to encourage responsible rider behaviour, says its chief operating officer, Ye Sun.
“In our app, if you park your bike in an area that you are not supposed to park in, we will deduct credit score. If it gets too low, we won’t allow you to use our bike,” he says.
Sun studied and worked in the United States and London before returning to China. Both countries figure in international expansion plans for Bluegogo, which pitches itself as the most comfortable share bike, offering a sports model with three gears.
The bike sharing model will need to be localised for overseas cities, he says. Western consumers were less familiar with the digital QR code that unlocks the bikes, for example. The QR code is ubiquitous in China, and commonly used to pay for groceries at supermarkets with smartphones.
“There’s a lot of educating to do, not only consumers but also governments. They don’t have existing regulations for bike-sharing… We want to prove we have the capability and technology to ensure we don’t cause a mess,” he says.
Meanwhile in China, he expects consolidation in the crowded field this year and says “some companies will die”.
Beijing office workers say they have been won over by the convenience. Habits have been changed.
Li Xiang, 28, says riding a Mobike from the subway to her office reduces a 15-minute walk to a 5-minute trip.
Xuan Li, 30, rides because he doesn’t like waiting 10 minutes to catch a bus. “I think it’s really good for the environment,” he says. “You can see in the sky the air pollution. I think most Chinese people are changing their mind, and they like to do something to protect the environment.”
By Kirsty Needham
Sydney Morning Herald