Thanks to an explosion of bike share apps and providers, China is rediscovering its love of bicycles. In cities across the country and in the capital of Beijing, a colorful bike-share revolution is taking over on the streets, helping ease traffic snarls and keeping the air cleaner. It is also creating some problems.
China used to be called the “kingdom of bicycles,” and though cars have taken over in a major way, the growing popularity of bike-share apps seems to indicate two-wheelers are making a come back.
For drab and dusty Beijing, the bike-share color revolution of yellows, oranges and blues is a welcome sight. People of all ages are enjoying the convenience the bikes provide, which combines cell phone technology, and GPS tracking in some cases, to help users find a ride.
Traveling by car across the sprawling, densely populated city is often a nightmare. Even distances of a few kilometers can take up to an hour when traffic is snarling. Cheng Li, a bike-share user, said he has been driving his car less and using the metro more since he started using the service about six months ago. “After I get off the metro, I usually have to walk another kilometer or two, so I’ll grab a bike share and go. It’s less stressful,” Cheng said.
For many, the convenience of cycling is its biggest attraction. Beijing’s city government has long had a bike-share program in place, but many of its bike-share stations were inconveniently located. Getting registered for the smart phone based apps is also much easier. For Zhang Jian, the bike-share revolution is not only convenient, but nostalgic. “Now, when we’re riding home from work, especially in the evening, when it’s not as rushed, it feels like we’re reliving the past,” Zhang said.
Great Wall of bikes
But with a growing number of providers, competition is getting increasingly fierce. One key tactic of providers has been to flood the streets with bikes — so much so that sidewalks are almost blocked in some cases. The surge of bikes has become a major headache for city governments. Users frequently leave bikes in the middle of the street or just dump them on the sidewalk blocking passageways in an already densely populated city.
In Beijing’s southern district of Daxing, authorities have been fighting the surge by seizing the illegally parked bikes that clog streets and metro exits, one transportation worker said. “Bike sharing is really convenient, but no one is taking care of the problem of illegally parked bikes,” the worker said. Behind her are several thousand bikes that have been seized. It was unclear when or how they would be returned to the companies that made them.
“Since the Lunar New Year, the number of bikes has been growing rapidly. At least 10,000 bikes have been added to the streets (of Daxing) since then, and we’ve collected about a third of that total,” she said. China’s two biggest operators, Ofo and Mobike, have deployed more than 3 million bikes in scores of cities across the country. And the numbers continue to grow. Mobike aims to expand to 100 cities at home and abroad by the end of this year.
While many complain the bike-share revolution has taken over city streets, some like Gao Xiaochao are taking matters into their own hands. Gao is one of many who call themselves bike-share hunters. Bike-share hunters find and report stolen and vandalized bikes that users deliberately park outside their homes or inside gated communities. With some bike-share apps, riders can report illegally parked bikes or other problems the two-wheelers may have.
Gao uses his lunchtime to find, report and move illegally parked bikes.
“Bike hunting is like a game, a hobby, a way to get some exercise. It’s like a new way of living,” Gao said. “Sometimes, I spend two to three hours looking for illegally parked bikes and it’s just like talking a walk.” Many like Gao are passionate about bike sharing and what it is doing to help transportation and the city’s notoriously smoggy air.
However, as complaints grow and competition gets increasingly cut-throat, they hope companies will do more to improve their service and not just focus on flooding the streets with bikes to edge out competitors.