Scenes of millions of people cycling in major Chinese cities decades ago led many outsiders to call the country the “Kingdom of Bicycles”.

As China became the world’s second-largest economy, cars overtook bikes as the most popular form of transportation. The country is now the world’s largest auto market, but the downside is that roads are gridlocked and air pollution has become a pressing problem.

Now, new bike-sharing programmes are hoping to reinvigorate the nation’s love affair with the bike, reduce pollution, prevent snarl-ups, slash commuting times and help people to live healthier lives.

Public bike-sharing is not new in China. As the number of vehicles on the nation’s roads began to soar in the mid-2000s, academics and urban planners began calling for greater use of public transportation, and municipal governments began investing in affordable bike-sharing projects.

Beijing launched its programme in 2011, and now has 800 rental stations with about 50,000 bikes. Wuhan (Hubei province) and Hangzhou (Zhejiang province) have the highest numbers of public bikes in the world, with 90,000 and 60,000 respectively.

Zhang Hui, a magazine editor in Shanghai, has recently started using Mobikes, a privately-owned bike-sharing system: “I have used (government-operated) public bikes, but they are not user friendly. At first, I didn’t care for Mobikes, but I saw a growing number of people riding them and the stylish shape attracted me. I was curious and thought I would try it.”

More than 500 bicycles from China’s flourishing bike-sharing companies have been dumped in huge piles on the streets of the southern city of Shenzhen. Photo: AFP

More than 500 bicycles from China’s flourishing bike-sharing companies have been dumped in huge piles on the streets of the southern city of Shenzhen. Photo: AFP

Registration was easy. “There’s no metro card or bureaucracy. As long as you have a smartphone and a deposit of 299 yuan (RM193), you’re good to go,” the 29-year-old said.

She recommended the service to her family and friends because it provides a cheap, convenient form of transportation – a 30-minute ride costs about 1 yuan (64 sen).

“I don’t need to pick up or return the bike at a specific station. Instead, I can pick up and drop off in any public space as long as parking is allowed there,” she said.

Tech and bicycles

Mobikes, operated by a startup called Beijing Mobike Technology Co, appeared in Shanghai in April and Beijing in September, encouraging people to cycle short distances, rather than driving (this complements bus and train public transport systems).

The company is expanding rapidly in large cities, and ranks as one of the five most popular free transportation and tourism apps on the iPhone Chinese app store.

“We want to bring bicycles back to China’s cities,” said Hu Weiwei, Mobike’s founder. “We are using innovative technology to provide better services. Public bike-sharing already exists, but we aim to improve the user experience by upgrading the technology.”

Even smaller cities like Zhuzhou in Hunan province are promoting bike sharing as cheap eco-friendly transport.

Even smaller cities like Zhuzhou in Hunan province are promoting bike sharing as cheap eco-friendly transport.

The company’s free-floating model frees users from the need to find specific drop-off and collection points, and a GPS installed in a “smart” lock allows them to locate and book bikes in advance. The electricity required to power the smart lock is generated as the rider pedals.

Despite its success, Mobike’s technology and business model are not infallible.

The bike’s weight, fixed seats and self-power function results in an unpleasant riding experience for people unused to exercise or who are so tall they have to almost bend double to ride.

Moreover, the system crashed for several hours in September, and the free-floating model has seen bikes stolen or vandalised. Meanwhile, some users park in private spaces, leave bikes outside their apartment blocks, or even take them home overnight.

“We are a technology company. Our product is not perfect, but we will use technology and innovative business models to solve the problems,” Hu said.

Many of China’s cities still have a road lane specially for cyclists. Photo: AFP

Many of China’s cities still have a road lane specially for cyclists. Photo: AFP

On Oct 19, new silver and red bikes, Mobike Lite, became operational in Beijing and Shanghai. Compared with the older version, the new bikes are lighter and the smart lock is powered by solar energy.

Mobike has introduced a credit system to punish users who break the rules. Credit is deducted if a user regularly leaves bikes in inappropriate locations, and the accounts of repeat offenders are closed.

Zhuang Ji, marketing head at the Powerstation of Art, a gallery in Shanghai, is a volunteer “Mobike hunter”, searching for “missing or inappropriately parked bikes” in his leisure time. Since May, he has recovered more than 200 bikes.

“I worked for the fire department for 15 years and I care about social ethics very much,” Zhuang said. He sees Mobike as “a company with a conscience” that’s raising social awareness: “That’s why I like to help them.”

He is hoping that Mobikes will connect his gallery, located in a city suburb and 1.5km from the nearest subway station, with visitors who don’t want to walk or take a taxi.

Greener travel

As economies develop, pollution levels rise and competition for road space between vehicles becomes fierce. More efficient and greener modes of transportation are required, according to Zhu Dajian, a professor at the School of Economics and Management at Tongji University in Shanghai.

Bicycles are still used for commuting in Wuhan city of central China.

Bicycles are still used for commuting in Wuhan city of central China.

In a bike-sharing study published in April last year, Roland Berger, an international business consultancy, concluded: “Bike sharing is predicted to grow at a very fast pace, opening up to its users a new means of urban transportation.”

According to the study, by Dec 2013, about 640 bike-sharing programmes, with more than 640,000 bikes, were already in operation worldwide, and the market is expected to grow by 20% every year. By 2020, the global market could be worth as much as US$5.8bil (RM25.7bil).

“The Mobike model is not a result of rational planning by the government, but a product of the innovative private sector,” said Gao Fan, an associate professor of economics at Fudan University in Shanghai.

Profit is the key for private companies to produce public-oriented products. If innovation brings profits, the private sector will provide goods and services the public wants, according to Gao.

“Mobike spotted the market’s weakness and entered it to solve a problem the government had failed to overcome,” he said.

Zhu, from Tongji University, said: “Mobike’s model upgrades the technological and business models simultaneously to develop China’s on-demand economy. It may even ignite a new wave of cycling in China.” – China Daily/Asia News Network