Dockless Bike-Share Is Leading a Stunning Cycling Comeback in China

Dockless bike-share is changing how people get around in Chinese cities. Graphic: Beijing Tsinghua Tongheng Innovation Institute
Dockless bike-share is changing how people get around in Chinese cities. Graphic: Beijing Tsinghua Tongheng Innovation Institute

Maybe bikes will save the planet after all.

According to a report from the Beijing Tsinghua Tongheng Innovation Institute, helpfully relayed from the original Chinese by Carlton Reid at BikeBiz, cycling rates have doubled in Chinese cities since the advent of dockless bike-share systems.

There are now about 16 million dockless bike-share bikes in circulation around China, with each used for an average of three trips per day, according to the British Medical Journal.

China already had a strong cultural tradition of bicycling for transportation. Until recently, cycling was the dominant urban transportation mode, and most people are old enough to remember streets full of bike traffic.

After losing ground to motor vehicles for several years, bicycling in China is clawing back mode share thanks to the dockless bike-share boom. In Shenzhen, the bike-share fleet of 500,000 has replaced “nearly 10 percent of travel by private car,” Reid reports.

Buoyed by billions of dollars in venture capital, the companies are blanketing urban territory with their product. While Chinese cities are still figuring out how to deal with the clutter of dockless bike-share and the immense “bicycle graveyards” that pile up, the ubiquity of the new bike-share technology is also one of its distinct advantages.

The bikes are useful because they’re everywhere, with fleets that dwarf even the largest that American cities have to offer. They’re also affordable, with each trip costing as little as 30 cents. It remains to be seen whether the business model of cheap bikes at low prices is sustainable in the long run, but for now it’s clearly having a major effect on the urban transportation systems of the largest nation on Earth.

We’re also still learning how well the dockless bike-share model translates to American cities, where car culture is much more deeply ingrained and bike infrastructure remains patchy and sparse.

Here, the city that’s farthest along with dockless systems is Seattle, where the city permitted more than 9,000 of the bikes after its earlier attempt at a station-based system fizzled. Usage of the dockless bikes quickly eclipsed Seattle’s old system, but the number of trips per bike per day has fallen recently, and remains well below the figure for New York’s Citi Bike.

  • Asher Of LA

    Terrific development in China.

    Citibike is an outlier in trips per day, at around 7 – and it’s also woefully undersupplied relative to the demand (it has about as many bikes as Seattle’s bikeshares do). Any other city in America would love to have a usage of 3 times per bike per day.

    With the city not spending money on bikeshare, the utilization rate of bikes is far less of a concern, if at all – the critical metric is people: how many people are riding?

    One dockless official has claimed that the model is financially sustainable with one ride per bike per day (though its unclear what price he was assuming, at most $1).

  • ohnonononono

    DC now also has multiple dockless bike share operators. New York is behind as always.

  • cjstephens

    This is encouraging, but I would like to know more. How have the Chinese avoided the “bicycle graveyard” problem? Why did Seattle’s experiment with station-based bike share fail when it has been a success in so many other cities? Do docked and dockless systems work well together?

    I’m open to seeing more dockless systems here in NYC, but I still want to know more about how we can avoid some of the problems they present here.

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