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.  

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.