In April 2016, a new type of shared bicycle, the dockless or stationless bike, appeared on the streets of China’s major cities. Use requires downloading a smartphone app and then using the app to find, unlock (and later) lock the bike, paying via e-pay. They are very cheap — between five jiao to one yuan per half hour. Compared to the shared bike systems in European cities, which require the return of bicycles to a dock or station, dockless bikes offer flexibility and accessibility. The GPS in the electronic lock indicates the location of the bike, and users can park them almost anywhere.
In Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen, the number of share bikes has risen quickly to about one million in each city, and numbers are growing in many second-tier cities as well. Within a year the bikes have attracted more than seventy million users. Mobike is the largest operator among more than thirty bike-share companies competing in the Chinese market. Headquartered in Beijing, it received more than one billion US dollars in investment from local and overseas venture capital firms.
In 2016, China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and Ministry of Transportation proposed the ‘Scheme for Advancing Internet and Convenient Transportation and Accelerating Smart Transportation Development’, as part of the national blueprint for transportation development. Based on the principles of transport being ‘innovative, cooperative, green, open and shared’, dockless bikes are a perfect fit for the scheme. In a 2017 report on the Scheme, the NDRC designated a specific function for dockless bikes to fill the gap in the ‘last-one-kilometre’ of the transportation system. This function is being met according to Mobike’s data, which shows that in Beijing, eighty-one per cent of its dockless bikes are activated around bus stops and forty-four per cent between metro stations, with similar figures for Shanghai as well.
Millions of dockless bikes in use across China demonstrate the success of this new commercial mode of bike sharing. Yet the excitement of novelty and convenience has gone hand in hand with worries about safety and the potential for chaos in the cities. People can ride the bikes anywhere, including on walkways, and neither lights nor helmets are required. An eleven-year-old was hit and killed by a bus while riding a dockless bike that he had stolen on a busy road in Shanghai in 2017. His parents sued the bike’s company, demanding RMB8million (approximately AU$1.5 million) compensation, alleging the bikes are too easy to unlock. The bikes have also led to other sorts of problems. On a long weekend in Shenzhen, for example, people randomly parked the dockless bikes along the beach walk, blocking the seashore and creating serious congestion (see photo). In other cities, broken bikes pile up like mountains, damaging the ‘civilised landscape’ 文明城市形象. Others have been destroyed or stolen, found in rivers or stashed in trees.
City governments have already taken action in response to these problems. In August 2017, twelve municipal governments, including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen, strictly banned companies from adding to the existing stock of dockless bikes. This regulation is not new or exclusive to dockless bikes. Since the 1980s, many municipal governments have banned motorcycles in cities due to concerns both for safety and their contribution to air pollution. Dockless bikes provide local transport in some cities where electrobikes 电动车 are also banned, as in Guangzhou and Shenzhen. As the main mode of point-to-point urban transportation, dockless bikes are likely to be subject to further regulations and controls in the future.
Despite these challenges, Mobike has already become an international firm, expanding its operations to Singapore, Manchester, Florence, Milan, Bangkok, Sapporo, and London. The success of the smartphone-linked dockless bikes in China has motivated other companies around the world to enter the market. A Singaporean company called Obike launched dockless bikes in Melbourne in June 2017. The same month, Chinese entrepreneur Donald Tang, a graduate of the University of Technology, Sydney, imported 160 dockless bikes from China, established a dockless bike company called Reddy Go, and planned to have 6,000 bikes in Sydney by Christmas 2017. Controversies, similar to those in Chinese cities around abandoned and carelessly parked bikes are simmering, but have not halted the march of dockless bike schemes around the world.
News alert: China Bike-Sharing Startup Mobike Raises Over $600 Million in Series E Financing Round, The Largest Ever in the Industry’, tmtpost.com, 17 June 2017, online at: http://www.tmtpost.com/2635684.html
‘Steady Progress of ‘Internet +’ convenient transportation “互联网+”便捷交通工作稳步推进’, China’s National Development and Reform Commission, 25 January 2017, online at: http://jtyss.ndrc.gov.cn/gzdt/201701/t20170125_836762.html
Qinghua Tongheng 清华同衡 and Mobike 摩拜, ‘The white book of shared bike and urban development 2017 2017年共享单车与城市发展白皮书’, Tongheng urban lab report, 12 April 2017, online at: http://www.sohu.com/a/133766880_585110