How Urban Transport Shapes Consumer Lifestyles: Are Dockless Bicycle Sharing Schemes the Future in Cities?

The bicycle share scheme was first introduced way back in 1965, in Amsterdam, by a group of cycling activists. They devised the Witte Fietsen (White Bikes) system that allowed people to simply pick up a bicycle and drop it off anywhere at the end of their journey for the next person’s use. Unfortunately, with no formal locking and maintenance system, theft and damage of the bicycles led to the scheme’s swift demise. It was only in the mid- to late-2000s that the modern-day bicycle sharing system really took off, in large part thanks to smartphone technology. By downloading an app on a smartphone, users simply had to pick up a bicycle at any docking station, cycle to their required destination and lock it up again at the nearest station. However this model is now being challenged; some bicycle share schemes are removing the need for docking stations— instead, allowing users to leave the bicycle at non-predefined locations— essentially, anywhere in the public sphere.

Ownership dynamics of the eight largest bicycle share systems worldwide as of September 2015

Source: Euromonitor International from national statistics/UN

Note: bubble size represents population in 2016

China leads the way—aiming for global expansion

The dockless bicycle share scheme has been coined ‘Uber for bikes’ and utilises GPS (global positioning system), IoT (internet of things), QR codes (Quick Response Code) and smart lock technologies. China has been at the forefront of this new phenomenon with Mobike, the largest dockless share scheme provider in China, boasting over a million bicycles across 33 cities (including Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou) as of March 2017. Whilst Mobike is the main player in the country with 73% market share as at the end of 2016, others such as such as Ofo, Bluegogo, Xiaoming Bike and other copycat firms, have begun competing ferociously.

As competition in the domestic market intensifies, the major players of dockless bicycle sharing systems have been actively pursuing expansion into foreign markets. Ofo launched its sharing scheme in April 2017 in Cambridge, UK with 20 bicycles, and around 500 more set to be added in the near future. Additionally, Mobike (and Ofo) launched their bicycle sharing schemes in Singapore in 2017 and there are suggestions they have expressed their intent on expanding into London, Birmingham and Manchester.

Are cities likely to become bicycle dumping grounds?

The flexibility of the dockless bicycle share schemes offered by the likes of Mobike, Ofo and Bluegogo, act as an attractive selling point over the traditional system which locks users into dropping off bicycles at select locations. However, city planners have voiced their concerns and dissatisfaction with the new system. Reports suggest cities have been inundated with bicycles, with many being piled up on pavements and in other public spaces. In April 2017, during the Qingming Festival holiday in Shenzhen Bay Park, approximately 300,000 people visited per day, bringing with them 10,000 bicycles that were simply dumped at the bay, obstructing access to pedestrians. It resulted in Shenzhen’s city authorities ordering the bicycle sharing companies to remove all bicycles from the vicinity overnight. Moreover, Bluegogo’s entrance into San Francisco was soon quashed after just two months of operations as city officials claimed the bikes were making the city pavements unsightly. New laws and stricter city zoning regulations were passed in March 2017 which resulted in Bluegogo announcing its indefinite departure from San Francisco.

Sustainable forms of urban travel that avert car use, reduce traffic and minimise air pollution have been a key selling point of bicycle share schemes. Yet, whilst Chinese companies have tried to go one step further by altering the business model to issue almost complete freedom of travel to users, questions relating to the effect it could have on local bicycle industries and the damage it could cause to the urban landscape, remain unsolved. The importance in advocating green forms of travel is by all means a very important agenda that governments should consider, nonetheless, doing this at the expense of people’s livelihoods or the city’s image will likely draw up a myriad of other problems.