Almost a hundred Chinese cities now have bike-sharing schemes. The bikes, in various colours, have GPS trackers and can be unlocked simply by scanning a barcode on the frame with your phone. China may be creating a new model of transportation that could be adopted globally.
Zhu Dajian, Director of the Sustainable Development and Urbanisation Think Tank at Tongji University, told chinadialogue that 10 years of efforts to promote public bicycle schemes by the Chinese government had had little effect, yet these new schemes, run by private firms, have taken off in a mere year and have already reduced the number of car journeys and congestion.
Rapid investment has seen the number of bikes on the road rocket and spread over the course of the year. But this has also caused problems. Bikes are often parked haphazardly and infringe on urban spaces, while the manufacturing of the bikes is causing pollution.
A number of bike-sharing firms have recently published data which, they claim, shows the schemes provide urban residents with a convenient and low-carbon travel option.
In April, Mobike, known for its red livery and the first of the new bike-sharing schemes, worked with the Tsinghua Urban Planning and Design Institute to produce the first report on the impact of bike-sharing schemes.
According to that report, the total number of car journeys in the 50 cities in which Mobike operates fell by three per cent since the scheme was launched in 2016. In Beijing, 44 per cent of the company's bikes are used near subway stations; in Shanghai, the figure is 51 per cent.
Mobike users travelled an incredible 2.5 billion kilometres in one year, saving the equivalent annual emissions of 170,000 cars. These figures were based on Mobike's user data and 100,000 survey responses.
Shortly afterwards, Ofo, Mobike's biggest competitor (its bikes are yellow) and up-and-comer Bluegogo (blue bikes) published similar travel data from the first quarter of 2017.
Bluegogo's report showed a clear drop in short car journeys. In Beijing, journeys of less than five kilometres fell by 3.8 per cent, and in Shanghai by 3.2 per cent. In fact, 90 per cent of bike-sharing trips are less than five kilometres. Congestion dropped by 7.4 per cent in Beijing, and by 4.1 per cent and 6.8 per cent in Guangzhou and Shenzhen.
"In just a year the percentage of bike journeys has gone up from single figures to double digits," says Zhu.
Liu Daizong, Programme Director at the World Resources Institute (WRI), said that although the WRI does not currently have data on bike sharing, the use of these bikes in Chinese cities is already at phenomenal levels.
While urban residents may now find getting about the city easier, the rapid expansion has not been without problems. The bikes can be left and collected from anywhere in the city which is causing headaches for municipal authorities.
Media reports from Shenzhen told of over 10,000 bikes "invading" a beach during a recent public holiday, with an entire road taken over by parked bikes.
According to a China Central Television report there are currently 20 bike-sharing schemes competing in Beijing, with almost one million bikes.
Zhou Zhengyu, head of Beijing's Transportation Commission, said at an event marking Bicycle Day in April that the city has 700,000 shared bikes. It is as yet unknown if this is too many for a population of 20 million, as there are no authoritative figures on how often bikes are used.
According to one report, Ofo and Mobike have received a number of rounds of funding, with investments of up to three billion yuan ($441 million). The companies are aiming to snap up market share by rapid expansion.
In April, Mobike announced it had put a total of 3.65 million bikes on the road and was manufacturing 100,000 more a day -- 45 per cent of the global total. Ofo says it will have 10 million bikes available by the end of the year.
The bicycle is a zero-emission form of transport. But the sharp increase in the manufacturing of bicycles is causing environmental problems.
An environmental NGO, the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), has found that some makers of these bikes, such as Fuji-ta, one of Tianjin's biggest bicycle manufacturers, are getting such large orders from Ofo that they are running at full capacity and failing to take environmental issues into account.
Ding Shanshan, head of the IPE's green supply chains project, said that they have found breaches of rules, such as the construction of factories before approvals have been given.
On May 10 and 26, IPE wrote to two bike-sharing firms, asking them to consider the environmental damage the manufacture of their bikes might be having, to encourage problematic suppliers to make improvements and offer public explanations, and to build supplier management systems. But Ding Shanshan said neither Mobike nor Ofo have responded.
The Chinese government has already expressed support for the bike-sharing sector. When soliciting opinions on rules for bike-sharing, the Ministry of Transport said that internet-based bike rental schemes are to be encouraged to develop and improve service levels, so that these bikes will help improve urban transportation and reduce emissions from transportation. However, it is still unclear what actual rules will be applied.
Zhu Dajian says these schemes, invented in China, have created a new model for the urban public bicycle. Earlier schemes in Europe required bikes to be returned to fixed stations -- but the Chinese version is smarter and bikes can be left anywhere. Also, this is a new model for market provision of public services.
Zhu admits that the government will need a new approach to deal with this phenomenon. But if bike sharing can grow soundly and replace an urban transportation model based around the car, the entire world will benefit from China's example.
(Liu Qin is a researcher and Zhang Chun is a senior researcher at chinadialogue..)