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Chinese bike-share operators making tracks for Southeast Asia

Rent-a-cycle transport gains favor to stem congestion, pollution and obesity

Ofo launched a bike-sharing pilot program at Thailand's Thammasat University.

SINGAPORE/BANGKOK -- Chinese bike-sharing startups Mobike and Ofo are expanding to several Southeast Asian countries, betting that the push by local governments to encourage cycling will overcome the region's structural barriers against the mode of transportation.

Big on campus

At Thammasat University outside of Bangkok, Ofo's trademark yellow bikes crisscross the sprawling 1.2-million-sq.-meter campus. In August, the school began hosting the company's limited trial run to demonstrate the benefits of on-demand biking. The bikes proved to be so popular that Ofo added 400 more of them this month on top of the initial 600.

The bikes are free to use until the end of September, after which it will cost 5 baht (15 cents) for 30 minutes. "I don't have to wait for the bus in the hot weather, and they are convenient because you can leave them after you're done," said a 19-year-old female college student.

Mobike, officially known as Beijing Mobike Technology, will also soon launch tests of its shared bikes at a shopping center and another college in Thailand.

Bike-sharing, facilitated by smartphone apps that unlock bicycles and accept fees, have taken off in many of China's metropolises to the point of oversaturation and official freezes on further expansion.

Mobike raised funds from Chinese tech giant Tencent Holdings and U.S. equity funds. Ofo won backing from Alibaba Group Holding, China's e-commerce conglomerate. Together, the two young companies are branching out internationally.

Beating traffic and staying healthy

Their first stop was Singapore, which is struggling to deal with traffic snarls. Just 100 days after Ofo launched its service in the city-state in March, the number of users topped 100,000. Mobike, which set up shop in April, has equipped its bikes with tracking functions.

Singapore, for its part, is cooperating with the companies by expanding bike parking spaces at transport stations. The move is part of the government's effort to wean the public off automobiles, which includes expanding the rail system. Officials plan to encourage greater use of public transportation by having share bikes serve the first mile from the home to the train station, as well as the last mile from the station to the workplace.

Now the startups are looking to replicate the success in neighboring countries. Mobike's services will provide the answer to traffic congestion and contribute to improving the environment, company co-founder Xia Yiping told reporters last month in Bangkok.

In Southeast Asia, which is not immune to graying populations, bike-sharing is being held up as a way to promote wellness. This month, the Malaysian Health Ministry held an event in the city of Putrajaya where the deputy minister, Dr. Hilmi bin Haji Yahaya, rode a bicycle around town. Ofo, which participated in the event, provided 100 bikes, saying it wishes to advance a healthy cycling culture in the country.

Malaysia carries an adult obesity rate of 13.3%, according to a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit. The ratio started climbing with auto ownership, making Malaysia the most overweight among major Southeast Asian nations. The government seeks to kick-start bike-sharing and have its citizens work off the excess flab.

In Singapore, the aging population and the health costs that come with it are straining the national budget. Because of the uptick in lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, authorities are laying down 700km worth of bike lanes by 2030 as a way to get people up and moving.

A challenging environment

The jury is still out on whether bike sharing will instill a widespread culture of cycling across Southeast Asia. Not only is the region known for its sweltering temperatures and rainy seasons, roads in Bangkok and other places are uneven and filled with potholes. The lack of bike lanes also makes the market hardly ideal for bicycles.

But Southeast Asian countries are also slow to expand roads, which have led to constant traffic jams. Motorbike taxis that can wind through gridlock have taken off in that environment, among other cheap and convenient alternatives.

In addition, Singapore is taking steps to prevent unused rental bikes from piling up in the streets, as they have in China. In its quest to boost cycling, the city is offering free share bikes more or less constantly. 

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