A 1980s photo of a girl riding her bike in Beijing.
A young woman rides her bike on Beijing’s Dungtan Street in 1981. LHS/AP

Two decades ago, China pushed bikes aside to advance its car-centric ambitions. Now it’s regretting that move—and betting on bike share to making cycling cool again.

Not so long ago, bikes were ubiquitous in China. As the main form of transportation for the wealthy and working classes alike, the country had up to 523 million bike owners by the mid-1990s—that’s 43 bicycles for every 100 people. In Beijing, that figure reached as high as 72 bikes for every 100 people.

For that, China proudly embraced its title as the kingdom of bicycles.

“Owning a bike used to be one of the four treasures,” says David Wang, the founder of Bamboo Bicycle Beijing, a workshop that teaches cyclists to build bikes from bamboo. “It quickly became an everyday kind of vehicle.” That was before Chinese officials essentially waged a war on cycling, declaring it a nuisance that stood in the way of China’s car-centric ambitions. (That worked out well.)

Now, facing air pollution, relentless gridlock, and an opportunity to become a global leader in climate change, China wants that title back. The rate of bike ownership may not bounce back to its peak—partly, Wang says, because it costs just a few cents to get around using China’s bike share programs. In fact, cities are betting on a bike-share boom. Around 30 bike-share startups have rolled out in China’s cities, yet their bikes’ bright, colorful hues belie challenges that have emerged because of their convenience.

Breaking up with the bike

When cars became a status symbol in the 1990s, bikes became associated with the poor. The Chinese government further discouraged bike use by pursuing anti-biking policies. In its 2005 “Standard of Urban Road Traffic” report, for example, the national government urged big and mid-sized cities to prioritize public transportation to replace long-distance bike trips. It also pursued highway construction projects instead of building biking networks. At the city level, Guangzhou repurposed bike lanes for cars, and forced pedestrians to share the sidewalk with cyclists. In a more extreme gesture, Dalian declared itself a “non-bicycle city” in 2000.

Bike use fell swiftly. In Guangzhou, ridership went from 34 percent of all trips in 1995 to just 10 percent in 2003. Beijing went from 63 percent in 1986 to 39 percent in 2010, according to national statistics. Meanwhile, China was growing into the world’s largest auto market. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that the government, finally recognizing that cars were taking a toll on its cities, tried to reverse its stance on bikes, though efforts to reintegrate bikes into the mass transit system varied from one city to the next.

In some cities, public bike share emerged as a popular option after Hangzhou became the first city to experiment with it in 2008. Today, according to the Earth Policy Institute, China leads the world in public bike-share with at least 170 programs across the country. Hangzhou currently holds the world’s largest program, with more than 78,000 bikes available. Like in Western cities, they’re docked near buses and train stations in an effort to solve the last-mile problem.

Cyclists in Beijing try to pedal through a sidewalk crowded with bicycles from multiple bike-sharing companies. (Andy Wong/AP)

The swift rise of dockless bikes

Ridership really grew when startups like Mobike and Ofo pioneered a more convenient model: station-less bikes that riders can locate and unlock with their smartphones, and park virtually anywhere. There’s an estimated 2 million to 3 million of these bikes in China. The rides are cheap, with companies charging between 7 and 15 cents per half-hour ride—and they’re popular. “It's seen as stylish and cool among younger people, and hip among the middle class because of the technology,” says Wang, who himself uses Mobike when he’s in Beijing. “By the same token, it's very affordable, and you're seeing old people use it as well.”

Mobike, one of the first and most successful bike-share companies has taken its red bikes to more than 30 hubs around the country, and recently expanded overseas to Singapore. Its competitors, including Ofo and Bluegogo, are racing to catch up. There’s even talk of the station-less model coming to the U.S. and staying for good.

But economists and financial experts worry that the model may not be sustainable in the long run. At just a few cents a ride, the companies aren’t earning a profit to make up for the costs of the bikes (each Mobike reportedly costs upwards of $400). Instead they’re relying on investor funding. And with new competitors flocking to get their share of the market, the supply of bikes could very well exceed demand.

Plus, dockless bikes mean riders really do leave them everywhere: in alleyways, in front of businesses and homes, and other low-traffic areas. In fact, the problem is so prevalent that one group of vigilantes has made a game of finding and returning bikes to their proper place using their GPS locator. Quartz also recently reported that Mobike is not only hiring people to redistribute bikes, but they’re also paying consumers to park them in the optimal spots.

They’ve also become targets for thieves, vandals, and rivals—as well as a headache for city officials and business owners who find their shops blocked by bikes. Just a few months ago, photos of bikes piled some 10 feet high at the entrance of a park in Shenzhen made its way to the internet. Some are shown to be missing baskets and handlebars, even wheels.

Getty Images

In March, responding to increasing problems and complaints, bike associations in China released a draft of guidelines on how to regulate bike sharing. In Shanghai, for example, the number of complaints jumped from eight in the first half of 2016 to 176 by the end of the year. That number as of March sits at 460, according to China Daily. The draft calls on companies to hire one maintenance worker for every 200 bikes. That would mean the industry needs to add as many as 15,000 employees, cutting even further into their costs.

For the love of bikes… or phones?

But aside from the financial uncertainty of the startups, Wang wonders if bike share is actually doing what it’s intended to do: reinvigorating people’s love for bikes as everyday vehicles and deterring people from driving. Roads are still congested at the heart of these cities, and Wang admits that he doesn’t use bike share to replace driving, but to replace walking. “I think that's some research that needs to be done that probably hasn't happened,” he says. “What are these bikes contributing to the city, or are they replacing driving or are they replacing walking?”

Jeffrey Towson, a professor of investment at the Peking University's Guanghua School of Management, echoed Wang’s concern in an op-ed for the Nikkei Asian Review, adding that the current boom may not be the result of China’s love affair with bikes, but instead with mobile payments:

Chinese consumers have adopted mobile services like virtually no other population has over the past few years. In particular, they have adopted mobile payments in staggering numbers. The average American pays with credit cards, debit cards and other non-cash payments an average of 20-30 times a month. The average Chinese consumer now pays using a mobile phone over 50 times a month. …

This means there is a significant risk that bike-sharing may be largely a fad, with users soon moving on to the next hot mobile app. That does not mean bike-sharing demand will drop to zero, but maybe the growth investors are counting on will not occur.

Despite having decent bike infrastructure from the 1990s, Wang, who studies urban planning at MIT, thinks the city could do more to make biking inviting. “Most streets will have a 10- or 12-foot-wide bike lane that's cordoned off from the street, and there are also bike signal lights,” he says. “But that physical infrastructure is in decay and being abused. People will park their car or drive in the bike lanes, so when you talk to people there, they may not be very proud of Beijing—or most cities in China—being a bike city.”

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