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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How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.