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The Return of Pedal Power

Smartphone apps are creating a rapidly growing bike-sharing way of life across the globe


Over the past three decades, the mobility pattern in Southeast Asia has undergone major transformation: from bicycles to motor scooters and now back to bicycles. According to Beijing’s transportation commission, pedal power accounted for 63 percent of trips in the 1980s. This figure dropped to less than 18 percent by 2014. Surprisingly, however, bicycle usage is making a resurgence in the form of bike sharing accessed through smartphone apps. Today in Beijing, population 11 million, there are 2.4 million shareable bikes, with half the population being registered users. That’s more than 40 times as many registered users as in New York City’s large Citi Bike program.

Bike sharing is a fast-growing global phenomenon, pushed in part by Chinese enthusiasm. The key has been joining technology together with a young, highly educated entrepreneurial class. The boom in China arose primarily from the problem of university students repeatedly having their bicycles stolen. Four years ago, some of those students started thinking that maybe you don’t need to own a bike. Now they are some of the most successful Chinese entrepreneurs.

In China, unlike in France, where bike sharing got its start, there are no set docking stations scattered around a city. Just leave the bike when you get to your destination and lock it (by iPhone, of course). Because of GPS tracking software, this parked bike then appears on the phone app of other nearby subscribers looking for a bike.

The biggest bike-sharing companies in China, which have rapidly mushroomed into billion-dollar businesses, are spreading to hundreds of cities around the world, including more than a dozen U.S. cities. A big attraction of bike sharing has been the solving of the “last-mile” problem: helping people get between public transit centers and home.

China’s government has been encouraging the development of the shared economy, using a combination of incentives and minimal regulation. In the bike-sharing arena, this has made possible explosive growth but has also created problems, the biggest being the many broken-down, discarded, and vandalized bikes. Repair efforts have not kept up with the growing heaps of trashed or broken-down shareable bikes. One of the large Chinese companies has developed a bike with a drive shaft rather than chain propulsion, airless rubber tires that can’t be punctured, and a solar-powered, GPS smart lock — all innovations to minimize the need for repairs and to reduce thievery.

The growth of bike sharing in Europe and America has taken place in a more regulated environment and thus has been slower and more controlled. Because of convenience, health benefits, and improving infrastructure, biking and bike sharing will continue to expand. The public benefits — reduced carbon emissions, less pollution, less urban land dedicated to asphalt, and stronger community connectivity — are further spurs to the growth of pedal power.

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