Bike Boom to Bike Bust: Learning from China to Get the Most Out of Dockless Bikes

A couple of weeks ago, my Frontier Group colleagues and I wrote a blog post on how we all came to walk, bike or run to work. While I am lucky enough to have a quick bike commute here in Denver, nothing will ever top my daily commute last year in Nanjing, China. I was in the city for a teaching fellowship and placed in an apartment that was only a 10-minute walk from my school. Every day I would wander through the tight alleyways of the city, taking in the sounds of the morning.

But my brisk and picturesque walk to work seemed to be continually interrupted by toppled piles of bright orange or yellow bikes. It was the height of China’s dockless bicycle boom, and Chinese companies like Ofo and Mobike had flooded the streets with millions of bicycles. I was both amazed at the ingenious technology and annoyed at the inconvenience whenever I had to navigate around them.

While the technology that powers the dockless bikesharing is cutting edge, the tradition of biking in China is very old. Until the 1990s, the streets of Beijing would be filled each morning with thousands of bicyclists, pedaling to work in the “Bicycle Kingdom.” In the 1980s, bicycle trips made up a full 63 percent of all journeys and during the 1990s there were 72 bikes per 100 people in Beijing.

This situation changed as China opened to the outside world and focused on building a “modern” economy. Roads were widened and paved, highways were scaled up and BMWs became ubiquitous. Quietly, the “Bicycle Kingdom” began to fade as faster cars and trucks pushed bicycles to the edges of the street.  Just like the patterns that emerged during the rise of the automobile in America, the massive infrastructure needs of the personal car marginalized all other forms of transportation.  

However, in 2015– seemingly overnight – bicycles came back onto Chinese streets, and they came back in force. Within a couple of years, 60 companies had started to distribute shared dockless bikes onto the streets, offering rides for staggeringly low prices. Millions of new, public bicycles spread across the already crowded cities. The ubiquity of the bikes did help reinvigorate bicycle usage in China – more than doubling cycling’s share of transport miles in Chinese cities. Yet, their presence also began to pose some problems.

With almost no regulation or accountability mechanisms, bikes ended up everywhere, including blocking sidewalks and building entrances. The backlash was swift, and pictures of the worst parking jobs quickly spread across the internet. This concentrated public outrage soon became the narrative around Chinese bikesharing and helped shape attitudes abroad as well. Before dockless bikes had extensively entered American cities, internet articles were already talking about the chaos this new technology would bring to urban landscapes. Many declared dockless bikesharing a tech “fad” that couldn’t handle the reality of modern streets.

Due to the saturation of the market and public backlash, many Chinese dockless bikeshare companies began to fail and their unused bicycles piled up in eerie “bicycle graveyards.” The two largest providers, Ofo and Mobike, are still servicing fleets, but their reach has declined in the face of financial pressures.

To an extent, it makes sense that the first wave of dockless bikeshares subsided – nothing was done to prepare for them. The technological development of dockless bikesharing happened rapidly, with little time for China’s infrastructure and policies to react.

We can have the benefits that services like dockless bikesharing provide, without the worst of the negative impacts. The key is insightful public policy. With smart decisions and the investment of just a tiny fraction of the money and space we allocate to cars, we can unlock the potential of a transformative new option for transportation.

Several cities have already begun to do this. The city of Seattle, for example, has created a permitting process that welcomes bikeshare companies into the city, but also earmarks funds from the permits to support designated parking spaces, rider education and adaptive cycling initiatives for individuals with disabilities. During their pilot program, Seattleites rode more than 1 million miles on the bikes within six months and 74 percent of the residents had a favorable impression of the program.

Denver is another example of a city providing an institutional framework to enable bikesharing. Denver’s permit program goes beyond bikes to electric scooters and has extended to encourage bikeshare parking at transit stops to help establish options for Denverites to get from public transportation directly to their door.

Cities around the world are moving towards developing transportation systems with more options for residents and less dependence on cars. Yet, there will be growing pains as new tools and services find their way into our cities. If China’s experience teaches us anything, it’s that the next generation of “Bicycle Kingdoms” cannot be built without public policy that’s dedicated to intentionally integrating innovation onto our streets in ways that benefit the public.