Reinventing the wheel: are bikes the future of urban transport?

Anybody who has visited China recently will have noticed an abundance of bicycles: lined up or scattered around and ready to be unlocked with an app, and used at an hourly rate of 1RMB (around €0.13).

Two well-funded companies dominate bike rentals in China: Mobike and Ofo, the first financed by Tencent, the latter owned by none other than Alibaba and Didi Chuxing, which have clearly invested a lot of money to bring about a change from scarcity — relatively few bicycles, usually stolen or vandalized — to one of abundance, whereby the impact of such behavior gets minimized by the scale. These companies have continued to scale up supply to the point that we are seeing analysts change their minds, from the original “this business model makes no sense”, to the point that there is now mentions of a bike bubble, and have begun expanding to cities around the world, along with other companies like oBike, from Singapore.

China’s bike rental market has grown from scratch to the point where there are now several million on the streets of its towns and cities, and getting around on two wheels is increasingly popular. As with initiatives in other countries, all that users need to do is open an account, identifying themselves with their smartphone number and make a deposit against possible damages to bicycles, factors that have not impeded rapid adoption. A few decades ago, China chose to transition from bikes to cars, partly as a way to kick start economic growth; in a very short time, bicycles disappeared from cities.

Now, the problem of pollution and the availability of inexpensive and simple technology to create shared services are filling Chinese cities with bicycles, and China has quickly become a testing ground for this approach to urban mobility.

Do bikes have a role to play in urban mobility? We need only look at most European cities to see that regardless of age, social class, topography or weather, bikes are more popular than ever. Whether private or public, more and more cities around the world offer bike rentals, sometimes backed by sponsorship.

Spain is a relatively late starter compared to many other cities in Europe, and a country with much better weather on the whole, meaning that city authorities have little excuse not to promote the use of bikes and to make roads and streets safer for them. As of now, one would predict that the country needs at least a whole generation to get to see a person biking to work in a cold morning in a rainy day, but as we all know, that would be a perfectly common circumstance in places such as Amsterdam, Berlin or, increasingly, London.

Everything indicates that shared bicycles will become one of the main strengths of urban mobility, combined with adequate public transport networks for longer journeys and with other types of vehicles used by models of increasing efficiency, such as car-sharing or ride-sharing . The expansion of this phenomenon, with companies already so differentiated and capitalized undergoing a strong international expansion, seems to assure that soon we will see this type of bicycles in more and more places.

Mobike is now present in 160 Chinese cities and four markets outside the country (Singapore, Manchester, Florence and Milan in Italy, and, from this month, London), while Ofo is present in 17 Chinese cities and 10 worldwide: San Francisco, Seattle and Worcester in the United States, Cambridge and Hackney in the United Kingdom, Singapore, Vienna, the Thai city of Pathum Thani, Prague and Moscow. Finally, oBike is present in the cities of 11 countries in addition to its native Singapore: Taiwan, South, Malaysia, Australia, Thailand, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland.

A clear change of mentality is underway in countries where until recently, the bike was not considered a serious alternative by most people, and therefore, there was no economic incentive to encourage them to get peddling. That could all be about to change. Get ready for the bike sharing revolution.

(En español, aquí)