Bike Hunters – a new profession inspired by bikesharing

Soon after China’s leading bike-sharing company Mobike launched their service in Beijing last August, I decided to download the app to give it a try. Initially, the app was convenient and easy to use. For example, Mobike does not require users to return bikes to a designated parking station.

Mobike has specially designed and produced bikes for sharing. The bikes use a shaft drive system so that riders won’t face complications such as broken chains. The tires are filled with a thermal rubber, avoiding the need to pump them up, while the aluminum frame is rust resistant and can endure dusty environments.

Overall, the initial manufacturing process for the first batch of Mobikes cost up to RMB 3,000 (USD 436) before the company was able to lower the price.

Mobike in Shanghai (Photo from Baidu Images)
Mobike in Shanghai. Photo from Baidu Images.

Ever since, the orange Mobikes have gradually been springing up in streets across the capital, primarily in areas with young internet users, before spreading further afield.

In January Mobike posted a video named ‘Mobike One Day’, demonstrating how many riders are using Mobikes with an e-map in Shenzhen.

However, as the bikes prospered within China’s booming sharing economy, a new phenomenon also emerged: bike vandalism and stealing. In order to tackle this problem, Mobike set up ‘Bike Hunter’ positions to track down missing bikes.

Where did the missing Mobikes go? Chinese news portal Sina followed some Bike Hunters, also known as ‘Mobike Operators’, to find out exactly how they track down company property that has gone astray:

Downstairs or on the 16th floor?

Wang Shuo, 27, was a salesman before joining Mobike last year. Wang and his colleagues are responsible for the startup’s operation in Tongzhou, a Beijing suburb over 20 kilometers from the city center.

1. Wang Shuo
Mobike operator Wang Shuo. Photo from Sina Tech.

Wang, like other Mobike Operators, has a smartphone that is connected to the company’s intranet.

In late February, Wang drove a van the location where a Mobike had been reported missing by the app’s users.

Upon arrival, he pressed a button to activate the bike’s beeping. When that failed, Wang then checked the bike’s user history and quickly found the phone number of the last customer to ride the bike.

“The bike you rode is out of battery. We need to transport it back to charge it. Do you remember where you parked it?” Wang asked, using the same set of questions that he repeates every time he suspects an app user of keeping the bike for their own usage.

A man on the phone told Wang the bike was downstairs, but he could not remember the exact spot. He searched around the building and found nothing.

As the app showed the bike was just inside the apartment block, Wang walked inside the 22-floor building. He carefully checked every floor for signs of the bike before finally spotting it.

“The user told me he parked the bike downstairs. I found it on the 16th floor,” Wang sighed.

The one buried under the ground

Finding the bike inside the building did not surprise Wang. In the past, he has “picked” a bike from a tree, fished a bike out of the river, and in one instance, actually unearthed one from the ground.

On 21 February after days of warm weather, an unexpected snow descended onto the capital, giving Beijingers a chance to rejoice in the fresh air.

Once again, Wang and his partner set out into the slightly cold city tasked with discovering and taking back nearby broken bikes.

Wang’s smartphone has a bike management and operation app that displays nearby malfunctioning bikes in yellow and red on its map.

The app led them to the fringe of a construction site where the alarm function of the bike again failed to work. The two of them began searching in opposite directions.

Suddenly, Wang nearly stumbled. He looked down and discovered it was the handlebar of a Mobike.

The two men asked nearby sanitation workers for help and used sticks and shovels to pull the bike from the ground.

A Mobike is freshly unearthed from the ground. Photo from Sina Tech.
A Mobike is freshly unearthed from the ground. Photo from Sina Tech.

In addition to extreme cases like this, Wang has seen bikes where the QR codes have been erased so that other customers cannot scan and use them.

The QR Code on a Mobike is erased. Photo from Sina Tech.
The QR Code on a Mobike is erased. Photo from Sina Tech.

Bike theft is annoying; Imagine spotting a bike on the Mobike app only to walk back and forth in despair trying to find it. Before long, the only option is to give up and walk.

Still, compared with bike theft, vandalism is even harder to understand. Chinese media reported that some illegal motorcycle taxi drivers have deliberately damaged sharing bikes that have enticed away their customers.

As AllChinaTech reported, vandalism is rampant among sharing bikes in China. Bike Hunters like Wang have helped to collect broken and missing bikes so that bike sharing companies suffer fewer losses and there are more bikes for users.

(Top photo from Baidu Images)

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