Wheels come off China’s bicycle-sharing schemes

Commuters refuse to revert to two-wheelers, forcing officials to redesign the project
Published: 4:04 AM, September 5, 2014

BEIJING — Most bicycle-sharing schemes in China, kingdom of the humble pushbike, are being shunned by commuters whose refusal to revert to two wheels has resulted in the collapse of the biggest project of all.

The low take-up in the country contrasts with the success of bicycle-sharing schemes across the world, especially in European cities including London. The Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley said there were 712 cities operating schemes involving a total of more than 800,000 bicycles.

For a country paying the environmental price for a mass switch to cars and electric bikes, a return to two-wheelers — seen by former Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong as the obvious solution to the then backward nation’s crippling transport problems — again looked wise.

Hence, Beijing in recent years has been trying to rebuild the old republic of bike riders by promoting low-cost public bicycle-sharing schemes that are among the world’s most ambitious, green-transport experts have said.

Transport experts believe as many as half the bicycles in such schemes are in China, with 90,000 in Wuhan, named by the Earth Policy Institute last year as the world’s largest programme. But now, Wuhan officials are going back to the drawing board to design a new scheme for their vast city of 10 million people, after the collapse of the existing one.

“The frequency of use of such systems in most Chinese cities is still very low,” says transport expert Tang Yang of Zhejiang University in eastern China, who notes that there are 105 municipal schemes in the country. Nearby Hangzhou, in Zhejiang province, has a widely lauded programme, but many other cities have run into problems.

Wuhan relied on a private company to operate its sharing scheme, with government subsidies. But the operator could not keep up with the speed of the scheme’s expansion, from 50,000 bicycles in 2008 to 90,000 this year, said Mr Hu Runzhou, an adviser to the Wuhan government on the scheme.

“The management couldn’t keep up, the company didn’t maintain the bikes well, and it became harder and harder to find a bike that wasn’t broken,” he said, adding that the introduction of a fee of 30 yuan (S$6) for the previously free card needed to operate the bicycle had also cut the number of users.

Shanghai, a city of 24 million people, has also found scant uptake for its district-level bicycle-sharing schemes, except for one in an outlying suburb. Only 100 bicycles are available for rent in central Shanghai, and they are not at transport hubs. Also, the deposit for a card to operate the scheme in the central Xuhui district exceeds the cost of a cheap bicycle.

Many alternatives exist for commuters who want to solve the “last kilometre” problem of their daily commute, local transport experts said — from dirt-cheap illegal taxis or motorcycles to purchasing a hybrid manual-electric bicycle for as little as 1,000 yuan. THE FINANCIAL TIMES