As bike sharing takes off, city planners must move forward with two-wheel transportation

By Wan Lixin | December 21, 2016 | Shanghai Daily

As the year draws to an end, the city’s dreary aspect is being lit up by some brightly colored bikes. These bikes are meant for sharing and they come mainly from Mobike, in their distinctly orange and silver livery, and ofo, “the little yellow bikes,” though blue and green operators are also trying to be seen.

Over the weekend, during a family banquet at a suburban restaurant, my father-in-law explained to me in detail that while Mobikes are unlocked by scanning a QR code, the yellow ones have to be unlocked by manually entering a code number, which is sent to a mobile phone upon receipt of the plate number. He also observed that while Mobikes generally start at one yuan (14 US cents) for half hour, ofo bikes with a basket started at 0.5 yuan. Later I checked myself and confirmed his information. I marvel at the buzz such bikes are creating, even in the suburbs.

It is rather comforting to see that bicycles are staging a sudden comeback.

This comeback is all the more dramatic when you think that bikes, in a matter of only some two decades, have been virtually sanitized from urban streets.

One foreign friend told me recently that when he first arrived in Shanghai about 16 years ago, he sported a T-shirt adorned with a map of China made with bikes, as a tribute to the country once known as “the kingdom of bicycles.” It did not draw him looks of approval, and then he was tactfully advised by a colleague that he had better not wear that shirt.

In the minds of Chinese officials and the populace alike, bikes reflected badly on a country that was eager to put behind it anything that might be considered backward — this included its quaint narrow alleyways, cramped shikumen apartments, as well as tens of millions of bicycles.

I remember about 16 years ago, while waiting for a red light in a taxi at the intersection of Yan’an Road and Huashan Road, the driver suddenly blurted out to me: “Look at that stupid guy!” I looked up and saw a man, encumbered with a bike, struggling to climb up several flights of stairs on an overpass. The overpass was under the elevated highway and above a spacious surface road built for 20 lanes of motor vehicles. At that time, if bicycles were still morally right and economically smart, they were already socially stigmatized. They had already been banned from landmark boulevards and progressive urban centers, which made it difficult even then to cycle around.

The taxi driver’s condescension could have been derived from an awareness that while his mobility was facilitated by tons of metal and a tank of explosive fuel, this “stupid” cyclist still needed to depend on such a primitive tool to get around. Added to that, the city’s ingeniously designed urban road system only further frustrated his silly efforts.

Today, from the vantage point of that same overpass, our ingenious urban planners can admire a sea of cars during rush hour traffic. And they, like everyone else, can often enjoy the pleasure of this sight through a layer of smog.

Smart and green

Bikes have remained visible over the years, but today they are chiefly used by pensioners, housewives and migrants for short-distance trips. Thus the city’s emerging bicycle-sharing services, equipped with GPS systems and accessible through mobile apps, promise to refurbish the image of cycling as something chic, smart and green.

Big money is trying to make a business case for bikes. It’s up to the government to make a social and humanitarian case by weighing in proactively. On all major roads, as well as hubs such as Lujiazui and People’s Square, where bikes have been virtually purged, the urban management authority can set aside dedicated lanes for bikes. It can also work to make cycling and walking safe, dignified, and unintimidating experiences. But an even more formidable effort should be spent on roads that now only nominally allow for the use of bikes. Many of these roads have been steadily narrowed by parked cars.

As a result of the steady encroachment of cars — except in very small back lanes — it is no longer safe to cycle in many parts of the city. Many of my colleagues brought up here remember cycling to school when they were young, but they are horrified at the idea of letting their children do the same today.

It’s still unclear whether bike-sharing investors can reap sufficient financial returns to expand and sustain their services, but the government could cash in on a unique opportunity to promote cycling as a viable means of transport.

Bikes’ contribution to urban traffic is negligible at present. But even if cycling manages to make a small dent in traffic, it can catalyze important lifestyle changes. The urban authority cannot afford to get it wrong again this time.