“They were vandalised, dumped in canals and bins and stolen”: bike-sharing fiascoes and how to avoid them

Impounded bicycles from the bike-sharing schemes Mobike and Ofo in Shanghai, March 2017. Image: Getty.

Bike-sharing schemes are a fast-growing transport trend, with almost 1,500 operating around the world today. To governments, they’re a novel tool to help ease the burden on public transport systems and reduce congestion in cities. To people, they’re an affordable and green way to get from A to B, without having to actually buy a bike.

Inspired by the principles of the “sharing economy”, bike-sharing schemes aim to make efficient use of resources by providing affordable, short-term access to bikes on an “as-needed” basis. These schemes have been one of the most distinctive and user-friendly means of inspiring people to change their mode of travel, largely because they blend the sustainability of cycling with the speed and convenience of public transport.

But as striking photographs from China reveal, these bold principles don’t always play out in practice. To prevent thousands of bikes literally piling up in need of repair or retirement, cities and bike-sharing businesses need to swerve around a few obvious potholes.

An uphill effort

Certain features can make cities hostile places for bike-sharing schemes; for example, overcomplicated planning procedures, strict cycling laws (such as compulsory helmet use) and political friction over giving up parking spaces to bike docks.

Inadequate infrastructure – such as limited bike lanes and unprotected cycle paths – together with traffic safety concerns, bad weather and hilly streets can also put off would-be cyclists. And if schemes suffer from poor promotion or sluggish expansion, the bikes can languish for lack of use.

Traditional bike-sharing schemes enable users to rent and return bikes at special hire stations, but they don’t provide a door-to-door service. So, for them to work, convenience is crucial. Schemes such as Seattle’s Pronto paid the price for having sparse and poorly placed docking stations, ceasing operations in 2017.

Over the last two years, Chinese bike-sharing start-ups such as Mobike and Ofo – funded by internet giants Alibaba and Tencent – have rushed to address this problem, by providing stationless smart bikes, which users can lock and unlock using a mobile app.

With lightning speed, hundreds of door-to-door bike-sharing schemes have spread across China, throughout other Asian countries and finally into Europe – the homeland of conventional public bicycle programmes. This new model has in theory the capacity to transform the world of cycle hire, just as Uber and Lyft have done for cabs.


Fatally flawed?

But amid the rush to embrace this new technology, there have already been a fair few fiascoes. China’s third-biggest bike-sharing company, Bluegogo, has run into financial trouble, despite having 20m users and £226m in deposits at its zenith. With so much competition in the market, there are too many bikes available at very low prices, with insufficient demand from consumers.

Of course, some of these mistakes are easily avoidable. Wukong Bicycle, a minor Chinese start-up which placed 1,200 bikes in the notoriously hilly Chinese city of Chongqing, went out of business after only six months in operation, with 90 per cent of its bikes presumed missing or stolen. They made the fatal error of not installing GPS devices in their fleet.

Beijing-based bike-sharing firm 3Vbike also went bankrupt in June 2017, after losing more than 1,000 of its bikes in just four months. The scheme relied on location data from WeChat, rather than building its own app, making its tracking functions ineffective. Worse still, the owner had to purchase the bikes himself, for lack of other investors.

Manchester’s Mobike scheme – the first of its kind in the UK – is still going strong, despite facing teething issues during its first three months. Bikes were vandalised, dumped in canals and bins and stolen outright, leading the company’s spokesperson to suggest that the system has been “misundertood”. Bikes have since been taken in for repair, and will be redistributed across a smaller area in the city centre. The oBike scheme in Australian cities faced similar problems.

Survival guide

So, even with the right technology, dockless schemes are prone to misuse. If this new model of bike-sharing scheme is going to survive, operators will need to take note of these pitfalls, and adapt to the specific needs of their cities. Here are a few measures which can help to ensure the success of a bike-sharing scheme:

  • Stationless bikes might work where traditional bike-sharing schemes have failed, provided there is enough demand for these services. But free-floating bikes must have GPS systems attached – not doing so is a recipe for failure.

  • Fair fares, flexible membership options and ease of access all help to make schemes more user-friendly. And each scheme should have its own purpose-built app – no substitute is good enough.

  • Protection mechanisms and penalties for vandalism and theft should be in place from day one, to help minimise misuse. Market and education campaigns can be used to promote bike-sharing culture, and encourage people to take a positive attitude towards these bikes.

  • Too much competition within a city is a problem – an oversaturated bike-sharing market can be a fatal trap, especially for smaller schemes. Once they’ve assessed the market, operators need to make a city-specific plan for methodical and incremental growth. Rushing things through will lead to disaster.

  • City authorities should enthusiastically support bike-sharing and invest in cycling infrastructure to help schemes succeed; having a champion for the scheme, such as London’s former mayor Boris Johnson, guarantees long-term viability.

  • Very aggressive expansion can doom even the strongest dockless bike-sharing initiatives. Bike-sharing might not be an extremely profitable investment, so it’s important to manage investors’ expectations.

The ConversationBike-sharing is still, in many ways, a revelation and a positive addition for many cities which are battling the ill effects of car use. But at the same time it should be realised that not every city is destined to become a paradise for cyclists.

Alexandros Nikitas, Senior Lecturer in Transport, University of Huddersfield.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

How China's growing cities are adapting to pressures on housing and transport

Shenzhen, southern China's major financial centre. (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

In the last 40 years, the world’s most populous country has urbanised at a rate unprecedented in human history. China now has over 100 cities with populations greater than a million people, easily overshadowing the combined total of such cities in North America and Europe. 

That means urban policy in China is of increasing relevance to planning professionals around the world, and for many in Western nations there’s a lot to learn about the big-picture trends happening there, especially as local and national governments grapple with the coronavirus crisis. 

Can Chinese policymakers fully incorporate the hundreds of millions of rural-to-urban migrants living semi-legally in China’s cities into the economic boom that has transformed the lives of so many of their fellow citizens? The air quality in many major cities is still extremely poor, and lung cancer and other respiratory ailments are a persistent threat to health. Relatedly, now that car ownership is normalised among the urban middle classes, where are they going to put all these newly minted private automobiles?


Yan Song is the director of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill’s Program on Chinese Cities and a professor in the school’s celebrated urban planning department. She’s studied Chinese, American, and European cities for almost 20 years and I spoke with her about the issues above as well as changing attitudes towards cycling and displacement caused by urban renewal. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

American cities face very different challenges depending on which part of the country they are in. The Rust Belt struggles with vacancy, depopulation, and loss of tax base. In coastal cities housing affordability is a huge problem. How do the challenges of Chinese cities vary by region?

Generally speaking, the cities that are richer, usually on the eastern coastal line, are facing different challenges than cities in the western "hinterland." The cities that are at a more advantaged stage, where socio-economic development is pretty good, those cities are pretty much aware of the sustainability issue. They're keen on addressing things like green cities.

But the biggest challenge they face is housing affordability. Cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Hangzhou are trying to keep or attract young talent, but the housing prices are really, really high. The second challenge is equity. How do you provide equal, or at least fair, services to both the urban residents and the migrants who are living in the city, to alleviate some of the concerns around what the government is calling “social harmony?” 

Then the cities in the hinterland, typically they are resource economies. They are shrinking cities; they're trying to keep population. At the same time, they are addressing environmental issues, because they were overly relying on the natural endowments of their resources in the past decades, and now they're facing how to make the next stage of economic transition. That's the biggest divide in terms of regional challenges.

These urban centers rely on migrant workers for a lot of essential services, food preparation, driving, cleaning. But they live tenuous lives and don't have access to a lot of public services like education, health care, social insurance. Are Chinese policymakers trying to adopt a healthier relationship with this vast workforce?

The governments are making huge efforts in providing basic services to the migrants living in the city. They're relaxing restrictions for educational enrollment for migrants in the cities. In health care as well as the social security they are reforming the system to allow the free transfer of social benefits or credits across where they live and where they work [so they can be used in their rural hometown or the cities where they live and work]. 

In terms of health care, it's tough for the urban residents as well just because of the general shortage of the public health care system. So, it's tough for the urban residents and even tougher for the migrants. But the new policy agenda's strategists are aware of those disadvantages that urban migrants are facing in the cities and they're trying to fix the problem.

What about in terms of housing?

The rental market has been relaxed a lot in recent years to allow for more affordable accommodation of rural-to-urban migrants. Welfare housing, subsidised housing, unfortunately, skews to the urban residents. It's not opened up yet for the migrants. 

The rental market wasn't that active in previous years. But recently some policies allow for more flexible rental arrangements, allowing for shared rentals, making choices more available in the rental market. Before it was adopted, it’s prohibited to have, for example, three or more people sharing an apartment unit. Now that’s been relaxed in some cities, allowing for more migrant workers to share one unit to keep the rates down for them. You see a little bit more affordable rental units available in the market now.

I just read Thomas Campanella’s The Concrete Dragon, and he talks a lot about the scale of displacement in the 1990s and 2000s. Massive urban renewal projects where over 300,000 people in Beijing lost homes to Olympics-related development. Or Shanghai and Beijing each losing more homes in the ‘90s than were lost in all of America's urban renewal projects combined. It didn't sound like those displaced people had much of a voice in the political process. But that book was published in 2008.  How has policy changed since then, especially if people are more willing to engage in activism?

First of all, I want to make a justification for urban renewal in Chinese cities, which were developed mostly in the ‘50s and ‘60s. At the time, [in the 1990s] the conditions weren’t good and allowing for better standards of construction would inevitably have to displace some of the residents in older settlements. In my personal opinion, that wasn't something that could be done in an alternative way.  

Still, in the earlier days, the way of displacing people was really arbitrary, that's true. There wasn't much feedback gathered from the public or even from the people affected. In the name of the public interest, in the name of expanding a road, or expanding an urban center, that's just directed from the top down. 

Nowadays things are changing. The State Council realized they needed more inclusive urban development, they needed to have all the stakeholders heard in the process. In terms of how to process urban development, and sometimes displacement, the way that they are dealing with it now is more delicate and more inclusive.

Can you give me an example of what that looks like?

For example, [consider] hutong in Beijing, the alleyway houses, a typical lower-density [neighbourhood] that needs to be redeveloped. In the past, a notification was sent to the neighbours: “You need to be replaced. You need to be displaced, we need to develop.” That's it. 

Nowadays, they inform all different sorts of stakeholders. They could include artists' associations, nonprofits, grassroots organisations that represent the interests of the local residents. Then they [the citizens groups] could say what they really want to preserve. “This is what we think is really valuable” and that will be part of the inputs in the planning process. Some of the key elements could possibly be preserved. They  [the authorities] also talk about the social network, because they realized that when they displace people, the biggest loss is the social network that they have built in the original location. So, it's not only conserving some of the physical environment, but also trying to conserve some of the social network that people have.  


(STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Speaking of urban renewal, there was a big emphasis in the ‘90s and 2000s on highways. A lot of auto-oriented development in Beijing, following more of a Los Angeles than New York model. There's this quote I saw from Hong Kong architect Tao Ho, during the 1990s development of Pudong in Shanghai, warning against replicating “the tall buildings and car-oriented mentality of the West." 

In the ’90s or the first decade of the 21st century, most cities in China were still making mistakes. When I was a student, in the late '90s, I was translating for the American Planning Association. At the time, Beijing was still taking out the bike lanes and the planners from APA were telling them: “No, don't do that. Don't make that mistake." 

In the past decade, that's not occurring anymore. It has been happening [adding bike lanes] for a couple of years in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen. More attention has been given to improving the service quality of green transportation, upgrades to buses, the bike lane system, and so on. 

As China got richer, bikes became a symbol of poverty and, like you said, urban planners began removing bike lanes. Cities like Nanjing and Shanghai considered banning bikes from the central city entirely. 

For a long time, bike lanes were abandoned and the road surface was more devoted to the car. But in the past few years this has been changing, more road space has been given to bus rapid transit and to bike lanes. The attitude giving precedence to the private car is giving way.

Another thing they are trying to do is behavioural change, teaching younger generations that biking is cool, creating a new set of values that's more sustainable. In some major cities, you see educational campaigns, posters around the cities, [saying] bicycling is really cool. 

A recent paper you worked on looked at air quality in Chinese cities and found they are still struggling. The paper cited a study suggesting “that Chinese cities face the worst air quality across different cities around [the] world based on an extensive research of 175 countries.” Your paper recommends transit-oriented development and significant green outdoor space. Is that something you see policymakers adopting?

Yes, definitely, although with regional variations still. The eastern and southern cities are seeing more policies toward transit-oriented development. They are adapting smart technology too. For example, Hangzhou, which is the model of smart cities, the tech tycoon Alibaba installed sensors on every single traffic signal there. Then they were using technology to change the light, so when they detect a higher volume of traffic, they streamline the green lights and the red light wouldn't stop the cars, so there are less carbon emissions at the intersections. They showed that there was a reduction of up to 15% emissions. 

What about in terms of parking policy? How are policymakers trying to deal with the influx of cars in these cities? Are there parking minimums like in many American cities?

I was visiting Hangzhou in December, their “Smart City” headquarters there. They were trying to use technology to let people know where there's parking, so they don't have to drive around, which increases carbon emissions. In other cities, like Shenzhen, they were increasing the parking fee in the downtown by 50 yuan, or seven US dollars an hour. That's pretty high in the context of Chinese cities. It was 10 or 20 yuan before. So, just increasing the parking cost in the downtown area so that you discourage people from driving.

What are you working on now?

My new research is still on air quality. We had a really cool collaboration with a counterpart of Google Street Map. In China, that’s Baidu StreetMap. We asked the company to install another sensor on their cars when they take pictures. We added a sensor for air quality. So, we will know at a street level what are the current emissions by geolocation, by time. That will be really cool when we have all that data. 

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer for CityMetric.