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May 2, 2024

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Pedal power has again become a staple in urban transport, but it faces challenges

Not all that long ago, bicycles were the ubiquitous mode of travel in Chinese cities. Everywhere you looked, someone was pedaling somewhere. Then, automobile ownership became popular and people traded their bikes for cars.

In the past 10 years, bicycles have made a comeback, thanks to the rise of the “sharing economy” concept that ushered in shared bikes. You no longer have to own a bike to ride one. Companies provided fleets of bicycles that could be rented in one spot and left at a destination.

Bike sharing quickly became an affordable, eco-friendly and even healthy alternative to city streets congested with cars. Bicycle users soared from 310 million in 2017 to an estimated 500 million this year.

The earliest businesses in shared bikes, like Ofo and Mobike, capitalized on venture capital that was flooding into the “sharing market.” It helped propel the bike-sharing industry to a valuation of 30 billion yuan (US$4.14 billion) by 2022, with projections of it reaching 43 billion yuan by 2025.

However, the transition from an emerging novelty to a mainstream mode of transport has not come without its own set of problems.

One is cost.

Prices for shared bicycles for the first 30 minutes have increased from an average 1 yuan to as high as 1.5 yuan in some mainland cities, with additional surcharges during peak hours and holidays.

Although that’s still cheaper than taxis or private cars, the cost gap between bike-sharing and public transport is slowly narrowing. How might that affect the pedaling public?

Reaction to higher prices has been mixed. Some users say they understand the need for financial adjustments, while others — especially commuters who rely on these bikes daily — say they are feeling the pinch of higher costs.

The proliferation of shared bicycles has created jobs, not only within bike-sharing companies but also in related sectors such as manufacturing, maintenance and technology services.

After a quick Metro ride, I often grab a shared bike from stands at the station to weave my way through congested streets. This combination not only lessens my commute time but also gives me easy access to almost any spot in downtown Shanghai.

The downside of shared bikes has been plain to see. Bikes not in use were often improperly parked, cluttering or even blocking public walkways and other open spaces. That led to tighter regulations and, by consequence, industry consolidation. Only major players like Meituan Bike, Hello Bike and DiDi Bike remain primary operators.

The costs of buying bike fleets, maintaining them and managing their use has increased at the same time as regulators are cracking down on poor business practices and how the bikes are parked. Tighter regulatory oversight has driven operators to invest in new technologies to improve service management.

Some companies are also launching new bike models to meet the demand of young customers.

Hello Bike, for instance, has introduced a new, lighter model that is easier to ride and can be locked conveniently via a mobile app, unlike traditional shared bikes that require manual locking after use.

It’s now a common sight on local streets to see workers piling shared bikes onto trucks for redistribution to areas with higher demand. This process incurs significant labor costs.

International examples like Paris’s Vélib’ and London’s Santander Cycles have demonstrated that integrating bike-sharing with public transit and securing corporate sponsorships can create sustainable models.

These successful overseas programs also benefit from consistent city support and adjust their pricing to balance user needs with financial demands.

For shared bicycles to remain a staple in urban transport, Chinese companies must also adopt strategies that balance user needs with economic and regulatory realities.

This includes investing in advanced technologies to streamline operations, integrating with public transport systems for seamless urban mobility, and developing pricing models that ensure affordability while sustaining business operations.

Advanced technologies like artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things, for instance, could reduce operational costs and help companies manage their fleets more efficiently.

Introducing electric bikes and investing in green technology could broaden market appeal.

Subscription models could provide users with predictable costs and revenue, fostering longer-term usage and customer loyalty even amid fluctuating prices.

Additionally, urban planners must find ways to accommodate the growth of bike-sharing with other transit by dedicating more bike lanes and improving parking solutions.

The continued success of shared bicycles relies on a collaborative effort that involves governments, industry players and communities.

The goal for all should be creating a cleaner urban environment where residents can travel where they want in the easiest and most affordable ways they choose.


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