Uber for bikes from China

Air pollution is a problem for China. According to World Health Organization, a safe level of air quality contains 10-25 micrograms per cubic meter of PM2.5, a measure that represents the amount of small particles in the air. For understanding the importance of the problem, it is sufficient to remember that in the past months Beijing has reached up to 400 micrograms per cubic meter. Moreover, the documentary Under the Dome revealed that Hangzhou suffered more than 200 smoggy days in 2013 and its annual average concentration of fine air pollution particulates was recorded at 66 micrograms per cubic meter. Surely, not the best situation.

So, public authorities understood the need for further action to address the problem. As reported earlier, Hangzhou, with its 9 million people, places in the top 10 most congested in China, and in 2013 TomTom ranked it as the worst nationally and sixth in world. Here, pollution comes from cars and vehicles emissions. Indeed, an innovation in mobility sector is needed to solve the problem.

Here, public authorities have expanded the metro system and have invested in 3,000 electric buses and taxis but the turning point might be bike sharing. Thirteen of fifteen biggest public bike shares are in China and Hangzhou has almost the same population of London but the former has five times the number of bikes that the latter. We are talking about 84,100 cycles, twice as many as its nearest rival.

This kind of “Uber for bikes” works in a very simple way: all you need is to download an app that indicates you where to find a bike here, a QR code or a password let you to unlock the vehicle. The difference with traditional rental services is that riders are free to leave the bikes wherever they need or want.

The trend is incredible: since last April, Mobike, created by Hu Weiwei and Davis Wang, former head of Uber Shanghai, has placed more than 100,000 bikes in Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen and Guangzhou and in the first three months of 2017 has launched in six more cities. Ofo, a Peking University pilot project started in 2015, now serves 10 million users in 33 cities. These are only the tip of the iceberg, because there are other firms as Bluegogo and Xiaoming and a lot of new copycat firms. This “revolution” is also spreading abroad: Mobike is launching in Singapore, Bluegogo in San Francisco, Ofo in United Kingdom (surely Cambridge, perhaps in London, Birmingham and Manchester).

In Hangzhou, public sector is playing a crucial role, too. Green Smart Traffic (GST) started China’s first public bike share in Hangzhou in 2009. Zhan Li Qiang, the chief executive of GST is optimistic: “Hangzhou’s population is increasing by 200,000 a year and the roads are blocked. But the historic center means you can’t just knock down and rebuild, as happens in other parts of China. The public bike share cuts the burden of traffic and promotes an environmentally friendly approach among the people of the city. It’s a very effective way to solve the problem.” Effectively, with 3,000 docking stations and some new dockless share bikes, the problem should be overcome. According to estimates by GST, this program cuts fuel consumption by 135m litres of petrol and diesel a year.

But not everyone has a positive idea of the impact and efficiency of dockless bike sharing. Eric Mao, marketing manager at GST thinks that startups are too focused on chasing investment to provide a good service. In his opinion, the problem is that thousands of abandoned bikes parked everywhere could destroy the city’s beauty. Xue Huang, Mobike’s head of communications replies that they are working with local governments to deal with issues as users parking in the wrong place. In his opinion, it’s a question of user education process. They have developed a new system of credits to reward good behavior and punish bad. For example, Mobike give 100 credits to each user, with the chance to earn more by reporting badly parked bikes around the city. If the information is correct, the “informer” will gain 20 credits, the perpetrator loses 20 points and if you have fewer than 80 credits, the costs of rental become very high.

These kind of solutions are very useful in term of sustainability of dockless bike, but there are other important issues: the accuracy of GPS is crucial because the mismatch between the position reported on your smartphone and the real position of the bike is a problem, for example, if the bike is behind a locked gate; although it is expensive, the presence of maintenance teams is fundamental in terms of giving a good service and improving users locality; finally, the approval of the government is crucial if you want to work in socialist market economy.

One way or another, new cycle-share firms in China allow you to simply drop your bike wherever you want. It seems certain that this innovation won’t just be flooding China.


La possibilità di noleggiare biciclette senza doverle riportare nel loro deposito sta rivoluzionando il modo di muoversi in Cina. La competizione tra startup e settore pubblico sta contribuendo, tra le altre cose, a diminuire il livello di inquinamento nelle città, uno dei grandi problemi della Cina odierna.