Sharing China’s lessons on the bike-sharing boom
China has much to teach the world on bike-sharing.
With rapid industrialization many mega-cities are faced with serious traffic problems: traffic snarls, congestion, carbon emitting vehicles, and hassles for people who commute daily. Car-pooling has not worked in many situations.
Many bike rental operations have started up in China, targeting the major cities over the past year or so.
This is a cheap way of commuting and one way to address congestion and the carbon footprint. Besides, physical exercise is healthy.
As of the end of July, some 70 bike-rental companies had put a total of 16 million bikes onto China’s roads, according to the Ministry of Transport. Fresh curbs on some bike companies such as Ofo and Mobike have limited the number of bikes companies can put on the roads. At the same time, many bike companies have ventured into foreign markets with densely populated cities.
Ofo has so far entered eight countries outside China — Singapore, the UK, the US, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Thailand, Austria and Japan. It aims to deploy 20 million bikes in 20 countries worldwide by the end of the year.
Road planners in China have some reservations on the unchecked growth. These include too many bikes, vandalism and bikes dropped in the middle of roads and sidewalks, creating a danger to traffic and pedestrians. While some critics talk of a decline in civic responsibility, the positive feature is that many civic-minded volunteer groups are trying to fix the problem.
The bike companies have hurt some traditional means of transport and their interests: this leads to frustration expressed by some taxi and transport operators as their businesses are affected.
Some city governments have pointed out difficulties of administrative control even in Western cities such as New York, Manchester and Dallas.
Now, due to increased cycling traffic the road authorities are tightening rules and regulations, allocating special parking areas, imposing fines for misconduct, offering educational programs and building a separate cycling infrastructure. Moreover, some surveillance by civic-minded voluntary groups is helpful in monitoring the transgressions.
Once a system is in place and enforced, things shall fall into place. Moreover, monitoring and incentivizing good behavior by awarding merit points is being implemented. The merit points give concessional rates to users. According to volunteer groups, when users are incentivized and proper procedures laid out and stringently implemented, things shall dramatically improve.
China has done remarkably well on transport infrastructure. It has built multi-story roads and highways. It is doing the same in infrastructure building in other countries to improve communications and connectivity. Bike rental attests to efforts in mitigating the traffic woes.
China invented gunpowder, paper, printing and the compass. It is always trying novel ideas and “innovative disruption” to find indigenous solutions to its problems. China was not the first country to start bike-sharing, but its sheer scale is unique and its experience can help other Asian cities facing problems with traffic congestion and poor transport systems.
Any new idea or experiment brings in its wake teething problems and resistance. But with proper planning, rules and regulations, the dividends can far outweigh the initial difficulties.
Globally, the bike-sharing industry is still at an early stage. Many densely populated Asian countries can adapt bike-renting practice of China to their own environments.
The writer is Visiting Faculty at the Department of Defence and Strategic Studies, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, former Adviser at the COMSATS Institute of Technology in Islamabad and former president of the Islamabad Policy Research Institute. Shanghai Daily has edited this article for length.