The world arguably has never been more environmentally-conscious than it is today. China, in particular, has made some significant strides in its efforts to reduce air pollution and fossil fuel consumption. The country's desire to prove to the world that it has climate policies of its own coupled with local demand for alternatives to cars or mass transit transportation has paved the way for bike-sharing to take off.
After all, China has long been a bike-riding country. As the country developed, however, more and more of its citizens were able to afford cars. Today, there are more cars in the streets of China's major cities and hubs than ever before, which has made traffic a huge problem. This increase in car purchases can also be attributed to locals not wanting to take public transportation due to risks of catching viruses. The SARS epidemic of the early 2000s is said to have made the Chinese fearful of being in close proximity with others in confined spaces. Certainly, the recent COVID-19 outbreak didn't help to change this notion.
This left Chinese citizens with one other option – aside from walking, of course – bicycles. And over the last decade, bike-sharing took the country by storm, with dozens of tech companies setting up shop to capitalise on the surging demand. Soon, the streets of China were flooded with millions of colourful rental bikes. The likes of Hellobike, Didi and Meituan allowed riders to use an app to unlock bikes they can use to get around the city for a relatively low cost. Once riders are done, they can park their bike almost anywhere for it to be later picked up.
What on paper seemed like a good business idea that not only satisfied a local demand but also helped protect the environment was in reality not so sustainable after all. Despite investors rushing in to pour funding into these startups and tech giants, the bike-sharing frenzy died pretty quickly.
The Beijing-based Ofo, for example, was forced to fold in 2020 – six years after it was founded – after amounting debts it can no longer pay. What's interesting is Ofo used to be the market leader in China and was at one point deemed too big to fail. It grew so fast, aggressively expanding its services one city at a time almost overnight. And it didn't take too long for the company to also try its luck in international markets. But as the old adage goes, “The candle that burns twice as bright, burns half as long”.
The market later became saturated with new competitors, which is when the cracks in the bike-sharing idea started to show – that from a business perspective, it was becoming harder and harder to stay profitable. This resulted in a lot of companies declaring bankruptcy or being consolidated. And now China is left having to deal with the fallout of this crash – tens, if not hundreds, of millions of bikes from companies that have since closed left abandoned in graveyards across the country.
Municipal governments reportedly continue to confiscate derelict and illegally parked bikes in cities, later dumping them in these sites while they create new laws to regulate the industry and figure out what to do with the oversupply. Some bikes are refurbished and donated to neighbouring towns, while others are crushed into cubes. But given the number of bikes that have been dumped, it could take China quite a while to clear out all the graveyards. There are dump sites in Shanghai, Wuhan and Hangzhou, among so many others.
In spite of all this, the bike-sharing idea still holds some promise. Many have cited dockless bike-sharing as one of the main issues of these platforms. Riders can essentially leave their bikes anywhere when they're through with it, which can obviously create clutter or risk it getting damaged, to name a few inconveniences. Then, there's also the concern with safety. As developed as some cities are, not all of them are exactly bike-friendly.
This just means there's still room for improvement and perhaps bike-sharing can one day come back better than ever. The Chinese government – at least in some cities – seems to want to invest in infrastructure that can help cyclists, which is a good sign. If the tech companies behind these platforms can also do the same by creating docks or stations for these bikes to be parked, maybe the whole process of bike-sharing can be more organised.
The last decade saw dozens of tech companies jump into bike-sharing in China due to a surging demand among locals who were getting tired of traffic.
These companies would, however, crash almost as fast they soared, with many since folding and leaving their bikes to be abandoned.
Now, there are tens, if not hundreds, of millions of bikes sitting in graveyards across China, including Shanghai, Hangzhou and Wuhan, among so many places.