It’s 6pm on a Monday in Beijing. I just finished my shift at Project Pengyou and I am on my way home but the line to the nearest train snakes outside the station. It’ll take at least an hour before I’m home and hailing a cab would mean sitting in rush hour traffic and paying four times the price of the train. That’s when I notice the rental bikes lined up on nearly every corner.
Sometimes a bike is simply the quickest and cheapest way of traveling in a city of over 20 million people. Beijing’s streets, which bustle with cars, scooters, and people, are also flanked with hundreds of thousands of rental bikes that provide an economical alternative for Beijingers seeking to commute quickly.
But this isn’t a trend specific to Beijing. Since the 1990s, bicycle usage in China was in a steady decline. Many city dwellers became infatuated with owning cars and the country’s bike fleet count dropped more than 200 million! However, in recent years, bike-sharing companies like Mobike and Ofo have revitalized biking in China especially within big cities like Shanghai, Xi’an, and Beijing.
What about the U.S.?
It has taken bike-sharing companies only a few years for their industry to explode in China, What about bike-sharing works so well in China? The bike-sharing market in China is drastically different from other countries. For instance, biking culture in most American cities does not really allow growth in the bike-sharing industry.
In the U.S., bicycles are more than just tools for transportation; bicycles are an accessory. Take Portland, for instance. With biking accounting for 6% of all its transportation, Portland is often regarded as the greatest biking city in the United States. People typically bike as an alternative to driving for environmental reasons or to live healthier lives, forming a kind of sub or counter-culture to the mainstream (you might call these people hipsters!).
Most Americans who bike choose to do so for leisure or to be healthier and more sustainable. Affluent buyers buy higher quality bicycles and join them with other accessories like helmets and other biking clothes. Therefore, in many ways, owning a nice bike with nice accessories signals a membership in the ‘biking’ culture. Because of this commoditization of bikes, bike-sharing companies have remained stagnant in most American cities (with New York as an exception).
What makes China So Special?
China’s biking culture is a bit different. It starts at the beginning of the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949: “In the first 30 years of communist China, people aspired to own sanshengyixiang (三转一响), or ‘three rounds and sound’ — a wristwatch, bicycle, sewing machine and radio: the markers of a modern man” (Atlantic). By the time of economic reform, bicycles became the symbol of a backward Chinese past. Understanding that “to get rich is glorious”, many Chinese changed their aspirations to living in big cities, owning cars, and becoming economically successful – bikes were essentially forgotten.
By 2011, Chinese cities like Beijing were halted with miles-long traffic jams and plagued by polluted air and the government responded with policies that encouraged bike-riding. These factors paved the way for Mobike to introduce bike-sharing to China. Other companies followed. Ofo, with its iconic yellow design and absurd prevalence on city corners, was (and still remains) a fierce competitor through its accessibility and low rent cost.
While many Chinese own their own bikes, these companies currently dominate the biking industry in China as they provide the easiest and cheapest alternative to owning a bike, scooter, or car. However, during my time in Beijing, I have been noticing one or two specialty bike shops, shops which strike a resemblance to the high-quality stores from Chicago, where I’m from. Maybe the biking market in Beijing is shifting in a different direction?
Read more at:
The Atlantic | The Bicycle as Symbol of China’s Transformation
Reliance Foundry | Bike Culture: Europe vs America
NACTO | Bike Share in the US: 2010-2016
The New Yorker | To Get Rich is Glorious
University of Pennsylvania: Knowledge @ Wharton | Why Bicycles are Making a Huge Comeback in China