A MAN pedals a brand-new, orange and silver bicycle to his office door. He dismounts in the middle of the pavement, flicks down the kickstand and disappears inside. A woman approaches and waves her smartphone over a QR code near the rear mudguard. The lock snaps open and off she rides.
These days, China’s once bicycle-clogged streets are choked with cars. But some urbanites are getting back on two (motorless) wheels, lured by the ease of using shared “dockless” bikes controlled by high-tech gadgetry.
For years, bike-sharing schemes have been common in big cities around the world, including in China. Examples include Paris’s Vélib and London’s Santander Cycles (“Boris bikes”). But these require customers to return the bicycles to docking stations. In China, a more user-friendly approach is spreading rapidly. It involves bikes that can be paid for using a smartphone and left anywhere. GPS tracking enables them to be located with a mobile app. A ride typically costs only one yuan ($0.15) on a sleek-framed bike in an eye-catching colour.
The first such service was launched in June 2015 by a startup called Ofo. The company now has around 2.5m yellow-framed bikes in more than 50 cities in China. Its main rival, Mobike, which started up only a year ago, says it has “several million” of its orange-wheeled bikes spread across a similar area. Bluegogo has half a million bikes in six Chinese cities. It plans to add a new city every two weeks.
Several other companies are piling in, as are investors who believe the firms have global potential. Bluegogo was the first to launch overseas, in San Francisco in February. Ofo has recently started services in Singapore and San Diego, California. It was due to launch another one in Cambridge, England, as The Economist went to press. Mobike, too, is operating in Singapore and is eyeing other markets.The dockless system is prone to abuse. Some riders hide the bikes in or near their homes to prevent others from using them. Another trick involves photographing a bike’s QR code and then scratching it off to stop others from scanning it. With the stored image, the rider can then monopolise the machine. But customers caught misbehaving can have points deducted from their accounts, making it more expensive for them to rent the bikes.
A bigger problem for the new firms is persuading people to use bikes instead of cars. Thirty years ago, 63% of Beijingers pedalled to work. Now only 12% do. Many people think that cycling is only for the poor. A dating-show contestant famously quipped in 2010 that she would “rather cry in a BMW than smile on a bike.”
Cycling is also dangerous. About 40% of road accidents involve bicycles, according to a report in 2013. (Many bike lanes have been eliminated to make room for cars.) Some city authorities accuse the bike-sharing firms of causing congestion. This month the southern city of Shenzhen ordered limits on the number of shared bikes. Other cities, including Shanghai and Beijing, are considering similar measures.
But Chinese leaders like the services—they represent the kind of green innovation that China says it wants. In January the prime minister, Li Keqiang, told Mobike’s co-founder that her business model was “a revolution”. Not, presumably, the kind that Mao led, but one that would have made the chairman feel at home with its profusion of two-wheelers.