Image of street view.

Bike sharing: running green or running riot?

13 July 2018

Bike sharing schemes have been growing in popularity in many countries, including the UK. At the end of 2017, the number of towns and cities in the UK with schemes had more than doubled compared to 2015, amid a surge in popularity.

The two largest Chinese bike sharing companies, Ofo and Mobike, both started operation in the UK last year. Unlike the local schemes, their users are able to park the bikes at any appropriate location, rather than a designated parking dock. These "dockless" systems gained enormous popularity in China, which resulted in traditional Santander-esque bike sharing companies being almost wiped out from the market.

Though these schemes emerged in a bid to promote a greener life, they have attracted increasing concern because of the environmental and economical hazards they create.

Running green?

The schemes appear to have successfully reduced congestion and carbon in China. According to a report by a Chinese think tank, the total number of car journeys in the 50 cities in which Mobike operates had fallen by 3% since the scheme launched in 2016. Mobike users travelled an incredible 2.5bn kilometers in total in one year (the equivalent of over 60,000 times around the equator), saving the equivalent annual emissions of 170,000 cars. The statistics published by other bike sharing companies show a similar result.

Running riot?

The convenience and popularity of the schemes are the makers of their success, but also the source of their potential downfall.

The rapid growth of bike sharing companies has vastly overtaken the demand in China, so much so that the infrastructure and local regulations are simply not fit for the sudden flood of shared bikes, which can be parked anywhere and are often just abandoned.

In Shanghai, there are around 1.5m shared bikes on the road (in contrast, there are only 11,000 Santander Cycles in London). Bikes have been piling up and blocking already-crowded streets and pathways. As some of the companies which jumped in too big and too early have begun to fold, their huge surplus of bikes can be found collecting dust in vast vacant lots and many of their former customers have reported trouble getting their rental deposits back.

China's Ministry of Transport announced in November 2017 that it would clamp down on the sector to "protect customers' interests and put the industry in a healthy and orderly track."

Possible answer to the problems by lawmakers

Fortunately, regulators in Asia have realised the problems that come with these schemes and are taking actions to improve them.

Mr Lau Kwok-fan, of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, believes lax regulation is to blame for the oversupply of shared bikes and the fact they are "littered" everywhere. In 2017, the Hong Kong authorities removed about 11,000 illegally parked bikes in the city, including 146 operated by sharing schemes.

Policy makers in Singapore are also considering introducing a bill which would require operators to obtain a licence before being allowed to run their mobility services. Once the bill has been passed, businesses will have to reduce the size of their fleets to make sure the market is not flooded with bikes. Perhaps surprisingly, the bill is backed by some bike sharing companies as it will also reduce competition in the market and urge all companies to act responsibly.

UK: the way forward

Bike sharing schemes undoubtedly provide a healthier way of life and reduce carbon consumption, but tighter regulations are needed so that the schemes can develop sustainably.

London and some other UK cities are among the latest markets where Ofo and Mobike have been competing against each other. Similar to Shanghai, London is a heavily populated and congested mega city. Seeing what happened in China, it's easy to foresee that the same may take place in London, especially when dumped bikes are already being spottedĀ around the UK.

Going forward, the law makers should take quick actions in regulating the bike sharing schemes. Meanwhile, the authorities should allocate sufficient resources in clearing the bikes which are parked illegally and in educating the users to park the bikes responsibly.