- Cycling is booming again in China as people avoid public transport due to the risk of COVID-19 infection.
- Bike-sharing companies are using new technologies to offer a more tailored service. E-bikes and scooters are in high demand for longer journeys.
- If these trends last beyond the coronavirus pandemic, they could transform China’s cities, cut pollution, improve the health of millions and offer a model for congested urban areas everywhere.
Three years ago, China’s bike-sharing sector was booming, and start-ups crammed city streets with colourful two wheelers. The bubble burst in 2019, resulting in a wave of bankruptcies and huge bike graveyards. Now the COVID-19 pandemic is sparking a new enthusiasm for cycling in China, as people avoid buses and subways for fear of infection. Sharing companies have learned from their past mistakes, and are providing smarter services.
If sustained in the long run, bike-sharing could transform China’s cities, cut pollution, improve the health of millions of people, and provide a model for commuters and sharing companies everywhere. Here are four major bike-sharing trends from China that could outlast the pandemic, and shape how we travel for years to come:
Better service through AI and big data
Rather than simply flooding cities with millions of bikes, Chinese sharing platforms are increasingly using artificial intelligence (AI) and big data technologies to identify spots with the highest demand. Providing bikes only where they are needed reduces their overall number, and means sidewalks are no longer cluttered with discarded ones. The tailored approach also makes it easier for people to find available bikes during rush hour.
When a wave of Chinese bike-sharing companies went bankrupt in 2019, some observers suggested that demand had simply peaked. However, the current uptick in bike-sharing suggests that the problem lay with the business models rather than consumer demand as such. As businesses mature, adopt more advanced technologies and offer a better service, people are more likely to use bike-sharing in the long run. This could also ripple out into the sharing economy as a whole, as other companies use AI and big data to match their products and services to fluctuating demand.
Electric bikes are booming
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Chinese commuters have increasingly used shared bikes for longer rides. In February and March, the number of trips longer than 3 kilometres was double that of the same time period last year, data from bike-sharing companies shows. This was a change from conventional usage, which typically saw people hop on shared bikes for short distances – such as the so-called “first mile” from their front door to the next subway or train stop. As people preferred to ride in open space and avoid the risk of infection, they went beyond that first mile and covered the whole journey by bike.
One consequence has been a rise in the use of electric bikes and scooters, which make long journeys more convenient. Because they are more expensive than conventional bikes, e-bikes and e-scooters are more likely to be shared, especially by young and mobile people who may only stay in a given city for a year or so before exploring educational or job opportunities elsewhere. Sharing platforms give people unlimited access to them for as little as 200 yuan (less than $30) a month. By contrast, a new e-scooter would cost several thousand yuan.MOBILITY
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Previously, electric bikes and scooters were a somewhat overlooked trend in China, partly because they started in lower-tier cities with less public transport. In those cities, however, their use far exceeded that of conventional bikes even before COVID-19.
According to data collected by Hellobike, a bike-sharing company, nearly 300 million rides per day were completed on conventional bikes in China in 2019. More than twice as many journeys were made on electric bikes and electric scooters that year – 700 million rides a day. In Nanning, a second-tier city in Guangxi Province, electric vehicle travel exceeded 34% of all transportation that year, surpassing public transport and private cars.
Pandemic-related lifestyle changes have brought that trend to major cities – and sharing platforms have taken note. Meituan, a Chinese conglomerate that owns bike-sharing company Mobike, announced in May 2020 that it was putting several hundreds of thousands of e-bikes on the streets in the second quarter. It said it was ready to add more if needed. Didi’ Qingju Bicycle has also made expanding its e-bike sharing business a priority for 2020.
Cities are transforming to welcome electric vehicles
Electric vehicles, including bikes and scooters, involve more technological challenges than traditional bikes. For cities, this means building safe and convenient charging spots. For policy makers, it means devising appropriate regulations. China published national standards for electric vehicles in 2019, which included requirements for centralized charging and replacement.
Bike-sharing companies have partnered with battery makers to meet these technological challenges. Hellobike, for example, has joined forces with Chinese battery maker CATL to deploy more than 1 million electric scooters across China. At its kiosks, e-bike users swap their flat or faulty batteries out for new ones without having to plug in and wait.Could the pandemic usher in a golden age of cycling?
People are changing the way they travel – with potential long-term effects
Because of the pandemic, shared vehicles are edging into the mainstream, slowly overtaking public transport and private cars as the favoured way of travelling. This could change people’s perception of transport in the long run, and make them more open to new ideas and commuting habits.
Commuters who initially tried out cycling as a way of avoiding infection may find that it is more enjoyable and convenient than they thought. Sharing companies are also offering a broader palette of options than before, such as conventional bikes, e-bikes, e-scooters and carpooling, giving people further incentives to stick to the new way of commuting. Gradually, they are coming to see transport as a service. They no longer have to buy cars, scooters and bikes, but pay someone else to provide and look after them, and use them as needed. This concept, also known as MaaS (“Mobility-as-a-Service”), is slowly gaining traction in China.
Technology is the key to making MaaS a success. The most practical and convenient sharing services are powered by IoT (internet of things), big data, and intelligent systems that can operate vehicles for optimal scheduling. People will only continue sharing if it is easy and compatible with their busy schedules, and economically advantageous.
Cycling into the future
The coronavirus crisis has reshaped industries, business models and personal lives all over the world. In the long run, some of our choices and habits may revert to the way they were before COVID-19. However, the current situation is also a chance to evaluate our previous lifestyles.
As we respond to the pandemic, and take personal steps to stay healthy, many of us are trying out ways of exercising and travelling that could benefit us over a lifetime. Ideally, we will pair the best of our new experiences with insights gained from past practices, and use the result to make positive, sustainable long-term decisions. The revival of China’s bike-sharing economy is a great example of such a trend. Many people have given longer-distance cycling a chance for the first time this year, as an instant reaction to protect themselves from coronavirus. The challenge is to offer them an affordable, convenient and reliable service, underpinned by cutting-edge technology, and help them stick with their cycling habit for a cleaner and healthier future.
Winston Ma Wenyan, Adjunct Professor, New York University
This article was first published in the World Economic Forum.
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