How did China fall in love with dockless bikeshare?

Commuters in Beijing, 2017. Image: Getty.

Visiting Guangzhou in South East China in the late 1970s, my grandmother was struck by the streets full of cyclists, peddling their aging bicycles down wide boulevards without any other traffic. China’s process of “reform and opening up” changed all that – at least for a time. Cycling was understood as a symbol of Maoist China; owning a car became an achievable symbol of affluence.

Today, though, the bikes are coming back to China’s streets. Chinese bicycle sharing companies Mobike and Ofo rank among the country’s most successful start-ups, and have rolled out millions of bicycles to China’s cities. Mobike claims there are 2m rides per day on its platform in Guangzhou alone. There is, as one Uber executive  described the experience users of the car sharing service should have when they used it for the first time, a “feeling of plenty” whenever you open the apps.

Even in the outer district of Beijing where I live, as far from the centre of town as Bromley is to Trafalgar Square, the bicycles are unavoidable. Taking a five minute walk to the shops today (anything more and I’d cycle) I counted almost 100 dockless bicycles.

They are quite unlike the bicycles my grandmother remembers. These are smart bikes, with about 300 patents involved in their production. They are unlocked and paid for in seconds with a scan of the bicycle’s QR code.

Mobike says it operates one of the largest Internet of Things networks in the world and is integrated into WeChat, China’s equivalent of WhatsApp. Both companies nudge their customers into using bicycles responsibly. Users receive points for parking inside a geo-fenced area, which are agreed with local authorities. and are lose them for parking in inappropriate spaces or damaging a bicycle.

This is changing urban transport in China – not just in Beijing and Guangzhou but also in the “tier two and three” cities that are unknown in the West but which drive much of the country’s growth. By helping people to connect quickly to subway or bus services, bicycle sharing companies are enabling a modal shift towards sustainable transport. The huge amounts of data the companies are collecting also helps city planners to adjust local transport routes to reflect passenger flows.

The growing uptake in cycling also has public health benefits in a country which is experiencing a growing obesity epidemic, but where exercise for exercise’s sake is often perceived as a distraction from professional or academic success. Unlike more expensive and geographically limited cycle schemes such as London’s Santander Cycles, these benefits do not appear to be disproportionately helping affluent young men.

This has all happened incredibly quickly. Ofo started as a project of students in the Peking University cycling club, and two years ago neither company had a bicycle on a public road. Now they are both worth billions of pounds, and are among the most high profile unicorns in China. According to a government think tank, as many one-in-10 Chinese adults have used a dockless bicycle.  

Mobike and ofo have many of the competitive advantages of Chinese technology. First, the companies have access to significant capital from the biggest players in Chinese technology. Alibaba is the biggest investor in Ofo, and on 4 April Tencent-backed Meituan-Dianping (a food delivery giant) purchased Mobike.


The access to cash allows the companies to scale quickly without having to worry about turning an immediate profit. This scale is the key to attracting a large numbers of users in a city – with the ubiquity of the products reducing the need to spend on marketing.

Second, due to Chinese strengths in manufacturing, the bicycles are cheap to produce and require limited upkeep. This means that the companies can charge low fees for the rides after the customer makes an initial deposit. This makes bike sharing cheaper and more convenient than taking a bus.

Third, there is a huge home market. There are many large and densely populated Chinese cities with at least some public transport – fertile ground for dockless bicycle sharing. With the new-found popularity of 4G mobile internet in China (it only overtook 2G in late 2016) and digital payments, there is high demand for data-heavy apps.

The other big factor in bicycle sharing companies’ success is the surprisingly laissez-faire approach of the Chinese government. Until recently, the environment was a low concern for policymakers, and discussion of its cities’ pollution was discouraged. Beijing’s media even used to euphemistically refer to the toxic skies as “mist” or “fog”.

But as the environment became China’s biggest cause of social unrest, the government changed tack and began promoting more sustainable policies, as well as a more high tech economy. In this context, a home-grown technology based approach to greening China’s cities became a no brainer – particularly given dockless bicycle companies did not charge city governments for the service, as there is no infrastructure to install.  

Both companies are now rapidly expanding internationally at an astonishing rate. In June 2017, Manchester became Mobike’s 100th city. Five months later in Berlin, they’d doubled their city count.

In London, Ofo says it aspires to operate 150,000 bikes – more than 10 times as many as Santander Cycles. With pollution and public health rising up the list of mayoral priorities, perhaps these smart bikes will become a permanent feature of European cities.  

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“A story of incompetence, arrogance, privilege and power”: A brief history of the Garden Bridge

Ewwww. Image: Heatherwick.

Labour assembly member Tom Copley on a an ignominious history.

The publication last week of the final bill for Boris Johnson’s failed Garden Bridge has once again pushed this fiasco into the headlines.

As well as an eye-watering £43m bill for taxpayers for this Johnsonian indulgence, what has been revealed this week is astonishing profligacy by the arms-length vehicle established to deliver it: the Garden Bridge Trust. The line by line account of their spending reveals £161,000 spent on their website and £400,000 on a gala fundraising event, amongst many other eyebrow raising numbers. 

Bear in mind that back in 2012, Johnson promised that the bridge would be entirely privately funded. The bridge’s most ardent advocate, Joanna Lumley, called it a “tiara for the Thames” and “a gift for London”. Today, the project would seem the very opposite of a “gift”.

The London Assembly has been scrutinising this project since its inception, and I now chair a working group tasked with continuing our investigation. We are indebted to the work of local campaigners around Waterloo as well as Will Hurst of the Architects Journal, who has brought many of the scandals surrounding the project into the open, and who was the subject of an extraordinary public attack by Johnson for doing so.

Yet every revelation about this cursed project has thrown up more questions than it has answers, and it’s worth reminding ourselves just how shady and rotten the story of this project has been.

There was Johnson’s £10,000 taxpayer funded trip to San Francisco to drum up sponsorship for the Thomas Heatherwick garden bridge design, despite the fact that TfL had not at that point even tendered for a designer for the project.

The design contest itself was a sham, with one of the two other architects TfL begged to enter in an attempt to create the illusion of due process later saying they felt “used”. Heatherwick Studios was awarded the contract and made a total of £2.7m from taxpayers from the failed project.


Soon after the bridge’s engineering contract had been awarded to Arup, it was announced that TfL’s then managing director of planning, Richard de Cani, was departing TfL for a new job – at Arup. He continued to make key decisions relating to the project while working his notice period, a flagrant conflict of interest that wouldn’t have been allowed in the civil service. Arup received more than £13m of taxpayer cash from the failed project.

The tendering process attracted such concern that the then Transport Commissioner, Peter Hendy, ordered an internal audit of it. The resulting report was a whitewash, and a far more critical earlier draft was leaked to the London Assembly.

As concerns about the project grew, so did the interventions by the bridge’s powerful advocates to keep it on track. Boris Johnson signed a mayoral direction which watered down the conditions the Garden Bridge Trust had to meet in order to gain access to further public money, exposing taxpayers to further risk. When he was hauled in front of the London Assembly to explain this decision, after blustering for while he finally told me that he couldn’t remember.

David Cameron overruled the advice of senior civil servants in order to extend the project’s government credit line. And George Osborne was at one point even more keen on the Garden Bridge than Johnson himself. The then chancellor was criticised by the National Audit Office for bypassing usual channels in order to commit funding to it. Strangely, none of the project’s travails have made it onto the pages of the London Evening Standard, a paper he now edits. Nor did they under his predecessor Sarah Sands, now editor of the Today Programme, another firm advocate for the Garden Bridge.

By 2016 the project appeared to be in real trouble. Yet the Garden Bridge Trust ploughed ahead in the face of mounting risks. In February 2016, despite having not secured the land on the south bank to actually build the bridge on, nor satisfied all their planning consents, the Trust signed an engineering contract. That decision alone has cost the taxpayer £21m.

Minutes of the Trust’s board meetings that I secured from TfL (after much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Trust itself) reveal that weeks beforehand Thomas Heatherwick had urged the trustees to sign the contract in order to demonstrate “momentum”.

Meanwhile TfL, which was represented at board meetings by Richard de Cani and so should’ve been well aware of the mounting risks to the project, astonishingly failed to act in interests of taxpayers by shutting the project down.

Indeed, TfL allowed further public money to be released for the project despite the Trust not having satisfied at least two of the six conditions that had been set by TfL in order to protect the public purse. The decision to approve funding was personally approved by Transport Commissioner Mike Brown, who has never provided an adequate explanation for his decision.

The story of the Garden Bridge project is one of incompetence, arrogance and recklessness, but also of privilege and power. This was “the great and the good” trying to rig the system to force upon London a plaything for themselves wrapped up as a gift.

The London Assembly is determined to hold those responsible to account, and we will particularly focus on TfL’s role in this mess. However, this is not just a London issue, but a national scandal. There is a growing case for a Parliamentary inquiry into the project, and I would urge the Public Accounts Committee to launch an investigation. 

The Garden Bridge may seem like small beer compared to Brexit. But there is a common thread: Boris Johnson. It should appal and outrage us that this man is still being talked about as a potential future Prime Minister. His most expensive vanity project, now dead in the water, perhaps serves as an unwelcome prophecy for what may be to come should he ever enter Number 10.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.