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April 11, 2017

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Home » City specials » Hangzhou

A traffic problem that can’t be soft pedaled

BICYCLES used to be the icons of transport in China, but in the age of the auto, their small carbon footprint is muddying solutions to urban congestion.

During the Qingming Festival holiday last week, complaints about the parking snarls caused by the popular trend of shared-bike programs were loud and clear. The problem was especially aggravated in the area around West Lake, where bicycles were parked in lanes designated for motor vehicles.

Traffic authorities dispatched extra contingents of police to remove illegally parked bikes. Pictures of chaotic scenes caused a stir on online media platforms, sparking a new debate about the social value of a trend that began as a green solution to car congestion.

“The roads around West Lake are narrow,” said Wang Tian, a member of the West Lake Scenic Area Administration Committee. “Illegally parked bikes make them narrower and more jammed. It’s impossible to create additional bicycle parking areas because every piece of land around the lake is so precious.”

Before commercial sharing-bikes programs entered the market, Hangzhou was operating the largest government-owned bicycle rental system in the world. By the end of last year, that system covered 86,800 bikes, with daily usage peaking at 473,000.

The success of the program prompted private companies to jump on the bandwagon and offer their own bike-sharing platforms.

At the beginning of this year, Hellobike Co announced it would have more than 80,000 bikes in Hangzhou within a few months. The municipal government took eight years to reach that level.

The commercial operators offer advantages over the public program, with expedient digital technology for reserving, paying for, unlocking and tracking bicycles by phone apps.

“The rapid expansion of private programs results from hefty investment by venture capital,” said Zhang Liqiang, president of Hangzhou Jintong Public Bicycle Technology Co, supplier of bikes to the government program. “The result is vicious competition and a congestion of bikes.”

Shared-bike programs have been flourishing in China’s big cities with gridlocked traffic. Users can rent a bike in one location and drop it off at their destinations. Payment and unlocking bikes can done by mobile phone apps. By contrast, the public bike program, which operates on smartcards, requires riders to park them at fixed docking stations.

Jintong said it is adopting a new system to allow riders more latitude in where they park or return bicycles. It has also developed a new smart phone application providing users with an online platform similar to those used by commercial operators. It will permit riders to rent bikes by scanning a QR code.

The public program is also planning to extend its service around-the-clock in order to compete with 24/7 private rivals.

“The commercial operators haven’t had a big impact on us yet,” Zhang told Shanghai Daily. “Our ridership is still rising. But we lag our rivals in use of technology, which means we have to innovate and improve.”

As a government holding company, Jintong has specialized in providing bike services and technology, spreading the so-called “Hangzhou model” across the country. Thus far, it has formed ties with more than 200 Chinese cities and counties seeking to establish similar public bike-rental programs.

Today, public bicycles still dominate the downtown area of Hangzhou, but in tourism spots, visitors usually hire private shared-bikes for short-distance trips.

The new age of green bicycles has its problems. Sometimes riders take the bikes home with them so they are handy for a trip the next day. Some bikes are vandalized or locked in ways to prevent use by others.

The municipal governments in the cities of Guangzhou (Guangdong Province), Qingdao (Shandong Province) and Lanzhou (Gansu Province) have ordered shared-bike operators to strengthen their oversight and tackle these problems. Progress is slow, if negative media reports are to be believed.

“Jintong plans to coordinate with city governments to build an online supervision platform, allowing local authorities to monitor use of the bikes via electronic license plates,” said Zhang. “Every bike company is required to apply for licenses online, and governments can do random checks on them.”

Hangzhou has initiated a tighter traffic inspection system that threatens fines for anyone caught illegally parking a bike. If the rider can’t be located, the bicycle will be towed away.

“Low-carbon commuting is encouraged, but it has to be designed so that it doesn’t disrupt city transportation,” said a netizen who identified as Xiao Zhiche. “Companies should focus on social benefits rather than on profits.”


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