An American cyclist’s opinion on the bike-sharing race between Mobike and ofo

Albertus Rowan

As a cyclist in Beijing, I have had a car hit me and had four crashes with other cyclists and pedestrians. I attribute these accidents to the rush of traffic in Beijing. Rush-hour in the Wudaokou neighborhood of Beijing is a mix between King of the Hill and Lemmings.

The powers that be have decided that the best way to manage the insane rush of bodies and masses of steel during rush hours is to leave it up to human error. It was only after several times waiting at intersections for an eternity before I noticed them. Who you ask? Men and women in blue jumpsuits steeled with a fluorescent wavy stick get to play traffic God. These fine folks have been trusted sound of mind to wait four to five minutes before switching the traffic lights.

Traffic management is studied around the world. There are complex algorithms and data managers to optimize traffic flow and traffic light timing. Yet, in one of the most congested places in the world, that doesn’t seem to be needed. The one thing that saves me from the gates of insanity every time I am confronted with the rush hour overlords is that I am on a bike. After three years of living in Beijing I can guide my bike through a 4-way traffic jam like a surgeon’s blade.

The question is how do you get people to ditch their cars and ride bikes again? Welcome to the new world of app-powered bicycle renting in China. Is it an attempt to make cycling cool?

These companies offer bikes that are cute and stand out on sidewalks compared with the other dusty and rusty bikes. Yet how do they gain a share of the bicycle market when it is already over flowing with bikes? The bike sharing market has the makings for another battle like the one that occurred between Didi and Uber.

The ride sharing model that Uber users allows drivers to connect with passengers. This model allowed them profitability without maintaining a fleet of vehicles and drivers. The market they attracted were the people tired of the poor service and fares of traditional taxi services.

The vast majority of people in Chinese cities that can’t afford car can afford a bike. Chinese consumers are cash conscious and when you can buy a bicycle for less than RMB 100 why would someone use an app bike that cost more in the long term? On average a single ride of less than 30 minutes will cost one RMB. If a user bikes to and from their home/office to the subway that is ten rides a week. RMB10 ever week for 48 week comes out to ¥480 a year. This is does not even account for trips to dinner or the store.

Now the issue that I fear is whether I can depend on a bike being there when I need it. I am watching my phone as I walk out to get a bike and someone else gets it. Now I am stuck without a bike and no way to get where I am going. Then I am either late to wherever I’m going or I need to find a taxi which will be much more expensive.

I have noticed in my area of Beijing many of these bikes get parked in places that are awkward for anyone to access. It would appear that people are worried someone will take the bike they need. They then park the bike in an isolated area. This defeats the purpose of it being nearby where people will use it.

I have owned 3 bikes in Beijing for over three years and have never had one stolen. I park it in a secure area and lock my bike to an immovable object. I would rather chance it being stolen than have to run the risk of not having a bike.

Of all the company’s bikes Ofo,Mobike, Unibike that I have seen on the street not one of them I can use. I am 189 CM tall and I simply won’t pay for a bike that has no way to adjust the seat. I hope that in the future these companies will include a seat height adjuster. This is the one thing that Beijing city bike share got right.

From what I can see there seems to be one model that would work. University campuses can control what bikes come on campus. This would allow them to only supply the app share bikes on campus. This could would drastically reduce leftover bikes left on campus. I’m afraid that anyone that isn’t attracted by the novelty of using the app to unlock the bike or only needs a bike once or twice a week will buy their own bike instead.

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