First there was Uber, Sidecar, Lyft, and Didi, which revolutionized the car-for-hire industry with their convenient and affordable ride-sharing apps. In China, at least, phase two has already arrived, led by two Chinese startups, Mobike and Ofo.
The new revolution: Smart phone apps that allow patrons to pick up bicycles and leave them ANYWHERE. That’s right, anywhere. Patrons use their smart phone apps to find the nearest bicycle and to unlock it. They are then free to ride anywhere they like and just leave the bicycle. All for as little as $.15 per hour.
Just in time. With several Chinese urban areas already exceeding 20 million people in population, and with several expected to grow to 80 million residents over the next decade or so, the Chinese are already choking on automotive emissions and traffic congestion. Taxis help with the cost of car ownership and parking, but they are not the end-all. The professional drivers may be able to navigate a traffic jam better than the average driver, but they are still part of the automotive ecosystem – and its limitations.
China is one of the world’s leaders in terms of public transportation. It boasts the world’s largest system of high-speed rail. And the biggest subway system in the world is in Shanghai, while the Beijing subway system, the second largest in the world, carries as many as 11 million passengers per day. I was frequently one of them when I lived there.
But you still need to get to the station, or the bus stop. And it is that first or last mile that has always been the natural constraint on the embrace of mass transit. New York City commuters traveling into the city from out of the boroughs by train often use automobiles to cover that connection distance. But that doesn’t entirely realize the benefits of mass transit.
China may be uniquely qualified to take advantage of this new technology because most major urban streets are equipped with isolated lanes for bicycles. Urban planners the world over should take note. You can ride a bicycle in a safe environment without having to be a 20-something daredevil weaving through a sea of cars.
Many progressive cities around the globe have bicycle rental stations scattered around the city in order to facilitate clean and congestion-free travel. But you must pick up and leave the bike at one of their official racks. The first and last-mile problem is, therefore, potentially reduced, but not eliminated.
The bike-sharing revolution, of course, is occurring on China time and at a Chinese scale. Ofo, one of the pioneers, began as a student project at Peking University in Beijing. It will have 20-25 million bicycles in circulation by the end of this year.
There are two takeaways for me. The first is that anyone who thought that China could not be the next tech giant (And I was one of those at one time.) was clearly wrong.
The second has to do with simple humanity. I am often saddened by the strife and total lack of civility the world exhibits today. We’re all fighting. And for what?
I wonder, however, if part of the problem is simply our physical isolation from each other. My wife and I live in a suburb of Detroit now. There are no bicycle lanes. And while there is a fair amount of population density we have both marveled at how few people we encounter day to day. There are a lot of cars, which undoubtedly have drivers, but meeting at a stoplight isn’t quite the same as actually seeing each other.
Perhaps I am simply wistful for a simpler time when my friends and I rode our bikes for hours every day. But I don’t think so. Fond remembrances aren’t always bad.
China, despite the harsh rhetoric coming out of Washington these days, just might be on to something. And helping to save the world – our world – in the process.
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