Bike-sharing boom travels from China to rest of the world


The bike-sharing boom reached Australia last week, as rows of ‘free’ yellow bicycles appeared on Melbourne’s streets. Sydney is next, with hundreds of red bikes due in July.

Singapore’s Obike was the first to market in Melbourne. Reddy Go, a Sydney venture backed by China’s Bluegogo, is racing to catch up.

But if the experience in China is any guide, this narrow colour palette could only be the beginning.

The streets of Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhen are a rainbow of yellow, blue, teal, green, orange, red and more, as up to 20 rival bike sharing start-ups vie for the attention of China’s eco-conscious youth.

A young commuter unlocks a share bike in Beijing's CBD using her smartphone.A young commuter unlocks a share bike in Beijing’s CBD using her smartphone. Photo: Sanghee Liu

In Beijing alone, almost a million share bikes, unlocked with a smartphone app, have revitalised the city’s forgotten bike lanes over summer..

Rows of bikes are unloaded from trucks each morning to catch peak-hour train commuters emerging from subway stations, looking for a faster way to cover the “last mile” to the office. On Saturday nights, parked along bar street, they offer an easier way home.

As one company innovates, the rest follow. Solar panels, GPS locks, better gears.

The latest incarnation is shiny gold painted bling complete with mobile phone charger, called the Cool Qi Bike and backed by electronics giant Haier.

A new share bike system in the Melbourne CBD.A new share bike system in the Melbourne CBD. Photo: Eddie Jim

Mobike, one of the pioneers of the boom, has introduced the “princess” bike, especially for women, with leather seat and cane basket.

A report by Mobike and the Tsinghua Urban Planning and Design Institute claims car journeys in 50 Chinese cities have fallen by 3 per cent since bike sharing began last year. The bikes are tracked via GPS, generating valuable data for urban planners.

Obike launched in Melbourne on Thursday.Obike launched in Melbourne on Thursday. Photo: Eddie Jim

Mobike riders have cycled 2.5 billion kilometres, saving emissions from 170,000 cars. Bluegogo’s research claims traffic congestion fell by 7.4 per cent in Beijing.

Mobike made headlines on Thursday after raising $US600 million ($780 million) in its latest venture capital funding round to help it expand overseas. A thousand bikes arrive in Manchester, England, on June 29.

Melbourne Bike Share bikes, a council and RACV initiative, line up outside Southern Cross station.Melbourne Bike Share bikes, a council and RACV initiative, line up outside Southern Cross station. Photo: Mal Fairclough

In Singapore, the government has abandoned plans for a government-funded bike-share scheme in the wake of three private companies, Obike, Mobike and Ofo, entering the market since January.

China’s Ofo, with 1.5 million bikes in 43 Chinese cities, has raised $US400 million. Ofo launched in Cambridge, England, in February and wants to be in 10 international cities by year’s end.

A sample of the Reddy Go red bike to be launched in Sydney.A sample of the Reddy Go red bike to be launched in Sydney. Photo: Supplied

Back in Australia, it remains to be seen whether the general public will “get” bikes unlocked by a digital code, and are environmentally motivated enough to cycle.

The biggest users in China are the under 35s, whose social lives and shopping habits are dependent on their smartphones. Using a smartphone to make digital payments via QR codes has replaced cash for this generation.

University of Sydney student Angus McDonald, who was won over by bike sharing while on an Australian government New Colombo Plan scholarship at Shanghai’s Fudan University, says: “China is more open to innovation than Australia.”

“People took to it because there were little to no restrictions. Just pay and ride. Everyone was used to the WeChat virtual wallet, so payment was also trusted.”

He cautions Australia is different. Mr McDonald has formed AirBike, to be trialled on Sydney university campuses in September.

Local governments in China are scrambling to introduce regulations to catch up with the sudden, free-wheeling bike usage, and poor behaviour by some riders.

A Beijing newspaper reported this week that netizens had dubbed the Beijing City Moat a “tomb” for share bikes after 30 bikes were discovered in the water along a 1.4-kilometre stretch.

The bike companies, pumping millions of bikes out of factories funded by venture capitalists, seem to be less worried about occasional theft. But they are anxious to keep local governments on side and have introduced reward systems in their apps for riders who do the right thing.

China’s transport ministry released a draft national bike sharing regulation last month, to encourage the orderly integration of bikes into city traffic flows. It was seen as giving the official nod to the boom, which has changed commuting behaviour and is reducing pollution.

Each city has been told to plan for orderly bike parking facilities and cycle paths. Dedicated parking spaces should be provided near subway and bus stations, to overcome the issue of bikes crowding footpaths.

The new rules will also provide greater scrutiny of the payments and deposits collected by the bike-sharing companies.

The City of Sydney has told Reddy Go, which will start shipping red bikes from China on Monday, that it has no jurisdiction to allow or disallow bike sharing. But the council has asked bike-sharing companies to safeguard pedestrians, remember helmet laws, and ensure the bikes are managed in an orderly way.

Sydney’s Lord Mayor Clover Moore has written to NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, urging the NSW government to look at regulating how bikes are parked.

Reddy Go founder Donald Tang, 33, says helmets with company logos (to deter theft) will be provided free with the bikes, and he will employ an army of university students to shepherd and maintain his fleet.

By Kirsty Needham
Sydney Morning Herald


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