July 16, 2017 6:44 pm JST

China on way back to being bicycle superpower

Shared bikes have solved problems and created some of their own

WATARU KODAKA, Nikkei staff writer

A Shanghai officer pedals a rickshaw piled high with bikes abandoned on the city's streets. The municipality at the beginning of the year tightened bike-parking regulations and has towed at least 4,000 bikes.

SHANGHAI -- Roads in China used to be filled with bicycles. Then came motorization. And serious air pollution. And traffic snarls.

The noxious side effects, in turn, seem to have made room for shared bikes.

There's lots to like. China's newfound respect for emission-free commuting is good for riders' health. The bikes make it easy to pedal around traffic jams. They even seem to be pushing China back to bicycle powerhouse status again.

In mid-June, a 25-year-old woman was riding a flashy orange-colored bike through the rain. She was on her way to a restaurant for lunch in Shanghai's business district.

The office worker was using a bike-share service operated by Chinese startup Mobike, which launched in spring 2016. The venture has already started operating in the U.K. and other countries. It plans to launch the service in Japan's Fukuoka and Sapporo soon.

Using Mobike is pretty simple. The bikes have QR codes that can be scanned with a smartphone app. If a rider locks the bike manually after arriving at his or her destination, the usage fee will be automatically charged.

Fees are reasonable -- 1 yuan (15 cents) per 30 minutes. Then there is the added convenience of being able to leave a bike just about anywhere.

Mobike has become a huge hit and now has a fleet of 5 million bikes across China. In Shanghai alone, there are100,000 of shared bikes.

Yes, there are competitors. Ofo has 6 million yellow-framed bikes.

But like motorization before them, shared bikes have brought a host of their own problems. Some abandoned bikes have obstructed traffic, for instance. As a result, Shanghai and other municipalities are towing away these bikes.

When companies reclaim their towed bikes, they have to pay a fee, the amount of which depends on how long a municipality has stored it.

The industry itself is taking note of the problems. On Junly 5, it released a set of standards.

Bicycle associations in Shanghai and Tianjin drafted the regulations, and more than 10 bike-share companies, including Mobike and ofo, have signed on. The regulations define shared bicycles as those "designed for single daily traffic, using the internet leasing method," and specify a service life of three years. However, operators will be allowed to judge whether to reuse scrap parts.

The standards call on companies to hire at least one maintenance employee for every 200 bikes. They also cover the management of deposits, handling of customer complaints and compensation for users.

They will take effect on Oct. 1.

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