With bike sharing’s success, cities grappling with sprawl of cycles clogging the sidewalks

By Zhang Hongpei and Li Xuanmin Source:Global Times Published: 2017/5/10 19:33:39

Besieged by bicycles

China's bike-sharing companies have found that success breeds its own set of challenges. As bike-sharing's popularity has skyrocketed, Chinese cities have strained to deal with the sprawling masses of shared bicycles that surround many bus and subway stations at rush hours, blocking pedestrian and vehicle traffic. Bike-sharing companies have hired workers to organize their bicycles. Several cities have instituted regulations to deal with the problem. Yet the situation has left some wondering if bike sharing can be regulated without killing the convenience that has made it a success.

Shared bikes lean against each other in front of SKP shopping mall in Beijing on Monday. Photo: Zhang Hongpei/GT

Shared bikes block the sidewalk along Chaoyang Road on Monday. Photo: Zhang Hongpei/GT

Two Mobike bikes sit parked on Monday in a 1.5-meter-wide space set up by the Zhanlanlu street office in Beijing's Xicheng district. Photo: Zhang Hongpei/GT

A  worker surnamed Xue stacked yellow bikes onto the bed of his electric three-wheeler on Monday afternoon outside the East Bawangfen bus station in Beijing's Chaoyang district.

The bus station serves as a popular transfer point for residents who commute downtown from Beijing's Tongzhou district or Yanjiao township, North China's Hebei Province.

Xue's employer, bike-sharing company Ofo, posted him there after the bus station found itself besieged by masses of shared bicycles, which spilled out onto the roadway, sometimes blocking buses from leaving the station.

"Many shared bikes tend to get dumped outside the station around 6:30 pm, the period when people arrive to catch their buses home," Xue told the Global Times on Monday.

Xue then started up his vehicle to ship Ofo's bright yellow bicycles to another part of the town.

"We need to transport Ofo bikes from one site to another about a dozen times during each eight-hour work shift," he said.

Bike-sharing start-ups like Ofo and Beijing Mobike Technology Co have had to establish on-the-ground maintenance teams to deal with the mounting problems of illegally parked and inconveniently placed bicycles that have accompanied China's bike-sharing boom, the companies' spokespeople have said.

The situation illustrates one of the problems that has emerged with the lightning-fast growth of China's bike-sharing industry, which has left companies and local governments scrambling to solve the issue without sacrificing the convenience that has made bike sharing such a success.

Parking problems

It has become commonplace in major cities to see row upon row of bikes parked outside shopping malls and metro stations, which often disrupt both pedestrian and vehicle traffic.

A dearth of designated parking space for bikes is one of the problems. On Tuesday, a 32-year-old Beijing resident surnamed Hai had spent several minutes looking for a place to park his bike around Beiyuan Subway Station in ­Chaoyang district before deciding to just leave it on the sidewalk. The two-meter-wide stretch of pavement was already blocked with shared bicycles from many bike-sharing companies, leaving little space for pedestrians.

"I know this is not right [to park my bike on the sidewalk]," Hai told the Global Times. "But there is limited parking for bicycles in this area… What else can I do?"

Most Chinese cities are not bicycle friendly, a Mobike spokesperson said. To accommodate growing motor vehicle traffic, cities have made roads wider, so bike lanes and bicycle parking spaces have shrunk.

"The overall environment needs to change," the Mobike spokesperson told the Global Times on Tuesday.

A part-time Mobike employee surnamed Cao, who works at the East Bawangfen bus station, has seen bike-sharing users break the rules.

"Some users just refuse to listen to me and leave the bikes wherever they please, which makes my job harder," Cao told the Global Times on Monday.

The explosion in the number of bike-sharing start-ups has made things even worse, said Men Changhui, an analyst from Beijing-based CCID Consulting.

Bike-sharing companies have put an estimated 700,000 bicycles onto the streets of Beijing since August 2016, according to a statement on the website of the Beijing Municipality Commission of Transport.

"Supply will exceed demand in the near future, exacerbating the problem of illegal parking," Men told the Global Times on Tuesday.

Scrambling for solutions

Along with boots on the ground, the biggest bike-sharing platforms such as Mobike and Ofo have turned to technology to address the parking problem.

For example, Mobike in April 2017 set up hundreds of smart Mobike Preferred Locations in eight cities including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, capital of South China's Guangdong Province. These locations employ Internet of Things technology and built-in sensors that help the company precisely locate its bikes, the company's spokesperson said.

Ofo has joined forces with the satellite navigation company BDStar Navigation to improve its positioning technology, the company's spokesperson told the Global Times on Tuesday.

However, these measures have yet to succeed at keeping cities' roads and sidewalks open to pedestrian and vehicle traffic.

On April 21, the Beijing municipal government issued guidelines for the bike-sharing industry that require companies to take "major responsibility" for their vehicles. The guidelines also encouraged district governments to carve out more parking space for bicycles. 

For example, the Zhanlanlu street office in Beijing's Xicheng district launched an initiative on April 23 to coax bike riders to park in designated 1.5-meter-wide spaces on the sidewalk. Through the initiative, the office plans to set up 80 such spots for shared bikes.

Liu Shuhua, who is in charge of public relations at the office, said there has been an improvement in bicycle parking since the initiative's launch.

"It's very important to help people develop good habits for parking their bicycles," she told the Global Times on Monday.

In March, the Shanghai municipal government also rolled out regulations for bike sharing. It required the companies to employ maintenance and operation workers in numbers no smaller than 0.5 percent of the total number of bikes they have put out in the city.

The analyst Men pointed out that bike sharing wouldn't be nearly as convenient if every bicycle ended up in a designated parking area. If that were the case, some users might opt for other forms of transportation.

"The industry would lose much of its advantage," he said.

Local governments could alleviate the problem by assigning traffic police to supervise bicycle parking, but that would add to the cost, experts noted.

In some places, that's already happening. An official from the Majiapu street office in Beijing's Fengtai district said the office has expanded its staff by about one-third to organize shared bicycles on the street, according to a China Central Television report on April 27. The official did not disclose what it would cost to involve the local traffic police.

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