SHANGHAI -- After decades of getting its millions of citizens off their bicycles and into modern transportation, China is now struggling to make a big policy U-turn.
Last month, southern China's Zhongshan city for the first time filled its streets with 4,000 public bicycles, which citizens can ride free of charge for up to an hour. To further fuel the sharing, the city also built an online platform that gives citizens real-time information on where the closest docking station is and how many bicycles are available.
This is one of numerous bike-sharing programs that are quickly growing in an attempt to unsnarl China's traffic problems. Program promoters are also having to wrestle with financial barriers as well as a hostile environment that has developed for bikers in cities that used to have millions of them. The goal is to try to get back to days when the streets weren't gridlocked and when the majority of vehicles didn't create emissions.
Bike sharing started in Amsterdam as early as 1965. The concept then spread around the globe in cities including London and Washington. But Chinese cities, which joined this trend only a few years ago, are installing their networks at an unprecedented speed.
"Many Chinese cities are doing bike share at a much, much bigger scale than any U.S. or European cities," said Dani Simons, director of communications at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy in New York.
"It's mind-blowing, in fact, for many of us to see images from Hangzhou or Shanghai," Simons continued, referring to two Chinese cities with over 60,000 and 19,000 public bikes, respectively. By contrast, the largest program in the United States provides 1,100 bikes in the Washington, D.C., area.
Rather than simply copying the Western pattern, the Chinese are spicing it with their own innovations. Some cities added children's chairs on public bicycles, making family trips an easy matter. Others began providing free accident insurance, which bike-sharing program operators in the West rarely offer.
All these efforts bear fruit. For instance, Hangzhou was recently selected by the British Broadcasting Corp. to stand with Paris as one of the world's top eight cities in bike-sharing programs. Hangzhou reports that, on average, each of its public bikes now attracts five riders on a daily basis. The bikes didn't average one rider when the program launched three years ago.
Daily sprints to the bike stands
But such popularity is also creating troubles. At a public bike docking station outside one of Shanghai's busiest subway stations around 6 p.m., when citizens flood out of the crowded train, many of them immediately start a 100-meter sprint.
As she pressed her smart card to unlock a public bike, Chen Xiaochen seemed to be relieved. "Now I can ride it home instead of walking for 20 minutes," Chen said. "Riding the public bike is very convenient. But I can't always use it. There are too few bikes and too many people who want them."
Wang Wenlai, who left the docking station empty-handed, strongly agreed. "Look at this place," Wang said, pointing to dozens of empty docking points. "All the bikes have been taken. The only ones left are broken."
Such a scene happens almost every working day, says Wang. As Chinese mainly use public bikes for part of their daily commute, in the morning, cyclists rush to find docking points near the subway station to return bikes. At sunset, they all crowd there again to get a public bike to ride home.
To answer this "tidal need," Shanghai Forever Bicycle Co., the program operator, assigned staff to busy public bike docking stations during rush hours. Cyclists who can't find an empty docking point can return their bikes directly to staff there. Then those bikes are to be transferred by trucks to places where they are in high demand.
While those measures help serve more riders, they are viewed as merely a drop in the ocean. To meet the demand, more public bikes must be put on the road, says the company. But this is a step that is hard to take.
Marrying bike-sharing with carbon trading
Like most Chinese cities, Shanghai mainly runs its bike-sharing program with government subsidies. However, since such programs are not spelled out in Chinese law as part of publicly funded transportation systems, the company finds it difficult to bargain for more support.
But several hundred miles from Shanghai, another company expects to keep its public bicycles pedaling -- even without the financial training wheels of taxpayers' money.
According to the bike-sharing program under the Hangzhou Public Transport Group, over half of its operation cost is being offset by advertisement revenue. And its hundreds of customer centers are shared with small businesses like newspaper booths, in exchange for at least $1.5 million in rent every year. At the same time, the company also digs into a gold mine unique to this picturesque city.
Around West Lake, one of Hangzhou's more famous sightseeing spots, famed for its willow trees, lotus blossoms and ancient stone-arch bridges, public bike docking stations are set at every attraction. What started out as an alternative transportation means for tourists is proving to be a money-making machine for the company. Unlike the locals, who hardly use public bikes beyond no-charge time, tourists tend to forget themselves while cycling. They covered 10 percent of the company's costs this year.
As it all adds up, the company now expects to make ends meet from the service for which 90 percent of its users never pay. It also aims to cash in on a more invisible asset.
As city-dwellers and tourists switch from riding fossil fuel-powered vehicles to public bikes, more than 30,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions is reduced annually, estimates Tao Xuejun, vice president of the program. Tao says that his team cooperates with carbon trading experts to credit the emissions data and hopes to sell the credits to whoever needs them to offset his carbon footprint.
Busting bike-hostile drivers
But even if a profitable business model is developed and more public bikes can be provided as a result, bike-sharing program operators still face roadblocks. While many Chinese choose to cycle, there are more who dare not.
"My friends often complain: 'You promote cycling, but that is dangerous and inconvenient. It is impossible to ride bicycles inside the city!'" said Xiong Wei, who is in charge of the cycling program at Friends of Nature, an environmental nongovernmental organization in Beijing.
As a cyclist herself, Xiong says she knows exactly what her friends mean. For years, the city has sacrificed its cycling space to accommodate more drivers. And where bike-only lanes still exist, car owners often ignore signs and park there, forcing cyclists to ride in the lanes with grumpy drivers or to scare away old ladies on sidewalks. But Xiong noted that a change is now under way.
To go hand in hand with its newly announced 50,000 public bikes program by 2015, Beijing pledged to redesign roads with heavy car flows to ensure cyclists' safety. Newly installed cameras will catch car drivers who dare to occupy bike-only lanes.
The sea change in attitude toward cycling also appears in other Chinese cities. Liu Shaokun, an infrastructure expert at the Guangzhou office of the New York-based transportation institute, said that previously, policymakers in Guangzhou hardly bothered to consider cycling space during urban planning. But in recent years, the city has had car lanes eroded by bike-sharing programs. And that is having an impact.
Along the city's bustling Zhongshan Avenue, cyclists are separated from traffic and enjoy a tree shaded, 15-mile bike-only lane throughout a lush green park. The lane's creation doubled the ridership, Liu said, adding that it also encourages city-dwellers like him to consider cycling a fun experience, at least in this part of the city.
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