How ‘dockless’ bike-sharing has flooded China

Publication Date: 

Monday, 27 March 2017 - 3:45pm


Seb Egerton-Read

Recently described as the “Uber for bikes“, the rapid growth of dockless cycle-sharing schemes in China’s cities is staggering, a story that illustrates the potential hyper-charged impact of the latest digital technologies.  

Guardian correspondent Nick Van Mead reports on the scene in the Chinese city of Hangzhou, a 30ft screen in the public bike share office, where a system is tracking more than 40 cycle rentals every couple of seconds, and close to 350,000 transactions occur every day. An hour west of Shanghai, Hangzhou is slightly larger than London, but has a sharing system five times the size. Public bike sharing is one mechanism by which the city aims to reduce air pollution and traffic congestion, it has regularly ranked in the top 10 of China’s most congested cities.

However, as remarkable as the scale of Hangzhou’s initiative is, it hardly compares to the rise of “dockless” share bikes haphazardly parked and left throughout the city in their thousands.

Users download an app which identifies the locations of bikes, which they can then unlock using a QR code on their phones, or a combination they are sent. Riders are then free to leave the bikes wherever their journey ends (no more docking stations).

The growth of these schemes has been unprecedented. Mobike, launched in 2016, they were operating on the streets of 18 large Chinese cities by the end of the year and it was estimated that their schemes accounted for more than one million new bikes. Just three months in 2017, they’ve launched in six more cities, received backing from Foxconn and increased its production capacity to 10m bikes per year.

Meanwhile, Ofo, recognisable by their bright yellow bikes, which began life as a project at Peking University in 2015, claims to have 10 million users in 33 cities.

Convenient, affordable, and healthier, the rise of these bike-sharing schemes can be, and probably should be, viewed through a positive lens, but they have brought new challenges. The scale has reached such a point that piles of hundreds of dumped bikes are blocking walkways and other public areas. Moreover, the unregulated nature of the schemes means that missing saddles, broken locks, and other forms of disrepair are a common problem rendering many of the bikes useless.

How these challenges will be tackled and how this bike-sharing system on steroids will develop in China is unknown. However, the startups are not stopping in China. Mobike has already announced a launch date for a scheme in Singapore, and reportedly plans to target a number of European cities before the end of 2017.

Another perspective on Sixth Tone from Wu Xiabo:

“In 2016, bike-sharing was the technology, media, and telecommunications sector’s lone bright spot. These days, however, its earlier success seems like nothing more than a cruel joke.

When Mobike and Ofo first burst onto the scene, they seemed to herald a bike-sharing revolution. As it turned out, however, their business model has nothing to do with the concept of sharing. Not only do these services fail to properly reallocate resources across society, but they’ve also failed to capitalize on social media sites — an essential step in maximizing value in the sharing economy. Rather than allow users to connect with one another and share their own bikes, they burn money to produce their own bikes in an attempt to dominate the market.”

Read Xiabo’s piece in full.

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