When it comes to getting around in China, foreign English teachers have got it good.
Whether you want to check out nearby provinces by bullet train, dart around the underground subway or simply travel a few blocks by bus, taxi or rideshare, transport in China is both efficient and cheap.
Until recently, the missing piece to China’s transport puzzle has been the humble bicycle. Once synonymous with city life, over the past couple of decades riding a bike has become less and less popular as car ownership growth has skyrocketed.
However, thanks to the sharing economy and the ease of using your smartphone to pay for everyday goods and services, communal bikes have popped up all over China’s big cities.
Share bikes take over China's urban areas
The streets of Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhen have transformed into a rainbow of colors, as up to 20 rival bike-sharing startups vie for the attention of the country’s increasingly eco-conscious youth (see if the city you teach in has bike sharing).
In Beijing alone, almost a million share bikes, which can be easily unlocked with a smartphone app, have revitalized the city’s streets. Bikes are unloaded from trucks each morning in strategic places around the city, making it easy to get from A to B.
It makes sense really. Beijing, in particular, was ripe for the reinvasion of bicycles with its smooth, flat roads and designated bike lanes.
Some bike companies are differentiating themselves in unique ways. The new Cool Qi Bike is a gold-painted ‘bling bike’ complete with mobile phone charger and shiny front basket. It also features an automatically adjustable seat (just enter your height in the app) and a voice assistant that can tell you the weather forecast.
According to an article in Smart Shanghai, there are only 300 of this particular share bike in all of Shanghai. It’s a smart move by the company to create scarcity and make you feel special for riding one.
The bikes have also made their debut in Beijing, Shenzhen, Hangzhou and Xian.
The ultra-shiny share bike, the Cool Qi Bike, is available to rent in some of China's biggest cities (image source: The Shanghaiist).
Share bikes are competitively priced, and certainly affordable for foreign English teachers regardless of their salary. For example, taking the Cool Qi Bike for a spin costs just 1.5 RMB per 30 minutes, following a 298 RMB deposit.
As China embraces bike sharing, the proportion of car trips declines
The bike-sharing boom is expected to further bolster healthy urban development, according to startup Mobike and Beijing Tsinghua Tongheng Urban Planning and Design Institute.
As reported in China Daily, a survey of about 100,000 residents in 36 cities reported a 55% decline in their trips by car and a 53% decrease in their trips via unlicensed motorcycles after they started using shared bikes.
Wang Peng, deputy chief engineer of the innovation center for technology at Tsinghua Tongheng, said that people have made less trips by car since the debut of shared bikes.
“Previously, trips made by cars accounted for 29.8% of the total trips inside the city, while only 5.5% of trips were made by bike. Following the booming bike-sharing trend, the proportion of trips by car dropped to 26.6% and the proportion of bike rides doubled to 11.6% (both privately owned and shared bikes).”
Young people are the biggest users of bike sharing, whose everyday lives revolve around their smartphones. Paying to rent a bicycle via WeChat’s virtual wallet is now the norm.
The use of high-tech shared bikes, however, is not confined to young people. Data from Mobike showed that retired men over 60 traveled the longest distances.
A row of share bikes in Shanghai.
With popularity comes problems
According to The Sydney Morning Herald, local governments in China are scrambling to introduce regulations to catch up with the sudden, free-wheeling bike usage, and poor behaviour by some riders.
Netizens have dubbed the Beijing City Moat a ‘tomb’ for share bikes after 30 bikes were discovered in a stretch of water less than a mile long. The bike companies are keen to keep local governments on side and have introduced reward systems in their apps for riders who do the right thing.
Perhaps China’s new love of bicycles will change perceptions that only poor people ride them. It was only earlier this decade when, Ma Nuo, a 22-year-old woman from Beijing who appeared on TV dating show, If You Are the One, rejected an offer from a male contestant to take a ride on his bike.
“I’d rather cry in a BMW car than laugh on the backseat of a bicycle,” Ma told the contestant with a giggle.
As China continues to modernize and the sharing economy infiltrates our lives, bike sharing will become a standard mode of transport in China’s urban areas. This will make life easier for many foreign English teachers, as well as reduce pollution in China’s cities. And that can only be a good thing.
What do you think about China's new love affair for share bikes? Please comment below.