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Beijing’s bicycle mania must decide its environmental legacy

bike graveyard

The abundance of dockless shared bicycles in the Chinese capital has cluttered pavements and provoked authorities to dump many bikes in “bicycle graveyards” or landfills. But does such a saturated marketplace offer the world’s cities a viable environmental alternative to the car?

British songstress Katie Melua once sang that “there are nine million bicycles in Beijing”. While that statement may have rung true for much of the latter 20th century, the once-ubiquitous Flying Pigeon bicycle – of which over 500 million have been made since 1950 – has since been supplanted in the affectations of Beijingers by the car, of which there are currently over five million jostling for space on the Chinese capital’s roads.

But despite the limited success of government initiatives designed to restrict car use, the humble bicycle is enjoying something of a renaissance in Beijing and throughout urban China thanks to the rise of dockless sharing schemes. Riding the coat-tails of China’s recent boom in online payments, users download an app showing the location of bikes in the vicinity; once one is located, the user simply scans a QR code on the bike to release its locking mechanism, and is then free to ride wherever and for as long as they please, at a price roughly equivalent to 12p per hour.

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In addition to representing considerable value for money, the dockless, free-to-park-anywhere nature of China’s two-wheelers make them a considerably more user-friendly proposition than similar schemes elsewhere in the world such as London’s Santander Cycles, which are hamstrung by the need to be picked up and dropped off at docking stations located around the city. And with China’s dockless market leaders Mobike and Ofo entering the UK market, TFL may soon be looking nervously over their shoulders.

But though the rising use of bicycles is helping to clean Beijing’s perennially polluted air, their popularity is also giving rise to other environmental concerns. The early success of Mobike and Ofo – who now operate a combined 15 million bicycles across China – inspired many other firms to follow suit. According to Chinese state broadcaster CGTN, there are 2.35 million shared bicycles in Beijing alone, representing a figure roughly five times the real market demand. Walking through the capital’s business district one day last summer, I pushed my way past at least nine different brands of garishly liveried shared bikes on the pavement. Ironically, though the government may have hoped that the increased use of bicycles in lieu of cars may help alleviate congestion, the sheer volume of two-wheelers left haphazardly in public spaces across Beijing means that the opposite is often true.

Security guards at many office complexes and metro stations have lost patience and begun to implement specific zones in which bikes are permitted to be left, thereby partially undermining their “docklessness”. Meanwhile, local authorities have taken matters into their own hands by dumping huge numbers of bikes in landfill sites. Photographs of these makeshift “bike graveyards” have gone viral across Chinese social media, painting a questionable picture of the industry’s supposed sustainability.

Shenzen bikes

There is an abundance of shared bikes on the streets of Shenzhen and other Chinese cities

Fast punctures

With effective regulation from local authorities in short supply, many copycat outfits have quickly come and gone, having fallen victim to vandalism and their own poor financial planning. Discarded bikes are often seen strewn around parks, in rivers and even in trees. Many firms, however, have been content to write off the cost of destroyed bikes, and simply create more in their place, thus exacerbating the oversupply. Paradoxically, this situation may have come about in part thanks to China’s recent history as the workshop of the world – with years of experience and expertise in large-scale manufacturing to draw on, it is often more cost-effective for firms to build a new bike than to fix an existing one.

One firm, Wukong, went under after apparently losing around 90% of its stock, having seemingly failed to realise that their bikes’ lack of a GPS tracking system made them very easy to steal. More seriously, from a regulatory standpoint, other firms vanished after accruing millions of dollars in financing and users’ deposits. The failures of Bluegogo and Mingbike late last year seem to have spurred the government on to introduce measures tightening regulation of the nascent industry. In response to the Mingbike collapse, which resulted in the company laying off 99% of its staff and withholding all customer deposits, worth around 199 RMB each (about £23), the South China Morning Post quoted China’s Ministry of Transport as saying local governments would help ensure protection of consumer rights, adding that a series of regulations were now being drawn up.

As the recent rise of both shared bicycles and online payments has shown, new trends and innovations typically catch on quickly in China’s monumental marketplace, with authorities often playing catch-up in enforcing effective legislation. But the race now seems run. The number of shared bicycle operators in China has diminished as Ofo and Mobike appear to have won the battle for market share. Now that authorities are set to tighten regulation of the industry, there are signs that the “Wild West” era of bicycle-sharing in China may be over.

The bicycle has been synonymous with efficiency, translating 99% of the rider’s exertion into kinetic energy. While China’s bike-sharing marketplace can’t currently claim the same economy, its legacy could revolutionise the world’s cities.

Indeed, as dockless bicycles appear onto the streets of London, environmentally-conscious transport authorities in the UK and across much of the Western world will no doubt be keeping a close eye on how the movement continues to develop in China, and whether the combination of governmental regulation, technology and market forces will bring forth a 21st century “bicycle mania” of counter-productive largesse, or a sustainable urban alternative to the internal combustion engine.

Top image: a shared-bicycle graveyard in Beijing

James Hunt is a China based journalist

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