photo credit: iStock.com/tupungato

The Bicycles are Back

Author Gary Moreau

In the late 1980s I was granted a special visa to travel to Guangzhou, then called Canton. I traveled by plane (a fairly antiquated one, at that) from Hong Kong.

We landed at an airport where the terminal seemed no larger than a modest house. Today’s Baiyun airport, by comparison, handles 60 million passengers per year, more than New York’s Kennedy airport.

Bureaucracy and security were in full view. My paper work was passed along a row of officials, none of whom apparently spoke English or asked a single question. They did, however, stamp with big, loud, mechanical stamps that just sounded very official. Today, China is one of the most automated and digital countries on the planet. Many cities are very close to a cashless economy and there isn’t much you can’t do with just a mobile phone.

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On the security side there were a lot of young men in military uniforms at the airport holding some fairly serious weaponry, and they had all apparently been trained to look menacing. We were supposed to put our hand luggage (in my case, a briefcase) on a conveyer for x-ray inspection, undoubtedly in search of contraband coming in from Hong Kong. I was so overwhelmed with the scene, however, that I didn’t see the sign directing everyone to do that until I was almost past. I continued to walk by at least three automatic weapons but no one said a word. (Probably because I was a foreigner, I know now.)

And then I walked out the door. There were bicycles and people everywhere. I still can’t put it in words. There were very few cars, although my official host, a representative of the Communist Party at some level, had a car, so I was a given a bird’s eye view of what a swarm of bicycles looks like.

What was most impressive, however, was the total lack of carnage. The cyclists were packed so close together that a single accident was sure to turn into a massive chain reaction. And there appeared to be no rules of the road. Cyclists ignored the cars, what few traffic signals there were, the pedestrians, and each other. And somehow it all worked.

Substitute cars for bicycles and you have the same scenario today. The traffic in places like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou makes the traffic in any major American city pale by comparison. Imagine New York or Chicago with 25 million residents. And, to this day, while there are well-defined rules of the road, no one obeys them. Or even pretends. And the police don’t care.

This is China. It’s crowded and noisy. And it’s chaotic. (The Chinese don’t normally honor queues either.) But it works.

It works because the Chinese have learned how to cope with chaos. They live it every day. And yet things get done, usually at a speed Americans can’t quite fathom.

Bikes are now returning to the streets of China in the form of ride sharing platforms that work much like Uber and Lyft. It’s not a new idea. Bike sharing has been offered in major US cities for some time now.

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The difference, however, is transformative—or disastrous—depending on your perspective. China’s popular bike ride sharing platforms, like Ofo and Mobike, don’t require pickup, drop off, and storage stations. You find the bike wherever the last patron left it, but the app on your smart phone will tell you where that is. And you drop it off wherever you like. And that’s where it sits until someone else wants to use it.

The obvious lack of structure is ideal in solving the last mile problem. It really doesn’t matter where your last mile is. You don’t have to live next door to the subway entrance or bike rental station.

That same lack of structure, however, Americans have already noted, can create visual and pedestrian anarchy. Bikes will just pile up at the entrance to other forms of mass transit, and since there are no racks, and the Chinese typically reject rules, that can create an inconvenience for people just trying to get into or out of the tube.

This, I suspect, will be a much bigger hurdle for the Chinese ride sharing companies trying to expand into the US than they probably realize. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if these companies aren’t banned in otherwise “progressive” cities around the country. A recent article in The Washington Post claimed, in fact, “Opponents have branded Ofo and Mobike a menace, a plague and a public nuisance.”

It will start with the bureaucrats. In San Francisco the City Supervisor referred to China’s Bluegogo, which put 20,000 bikes on the street without permission in January, a “public nuisance,” and threatened legal action. (Of course. It’s the American solution.)

Even though these companies require no support from the cities themselves, since they don’t need racks or real estate, they will have to get a license to operate and they will, without a doubt, be excessively regulated. Local governments will try very hard to tell them where they can leave the bikes, offer the bikes, etc. And the police, of course, will be called upon to enforce the regulations, giving the men and women in blue yet another regulation to occupy their time and dilute their efforts to stop crime.

One of the reasons that the Chinese economy is so resilient is that the regulators don’t worry about the little stuff. If you want to start a small business, just start it. Sure, you technically need a license, but chances are that no one is going to bother you unless you give them a reason to. The police are more likely than not to patronize your business than shut it down.

And the reason that the police are able to keep a tight rein on violent crime is that they do little else. They don’t waste time writing out traffic tickets or fining some hapless predestination for jay walking. If you’re not threatening the Party or public security, the police are likely to leave you alone.

We Americans, on the other hand, are a nation of rule followers and enforcers. And rules are rules. There are no moral equivalents, if you will, when it comes to controlling what people do. Take a trip to your local DMV office and try to do something even remotely out of line with the rules if you doubt that.

The third, and perhaps most significant difference, however, is not that the Chinese won’t eventually see the need to do something about the problem. It is that the people impacted will do something about it. They will figure out some way to overcome the problem without throwing away the benefits.

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Americans, on the other hand, will, I suspect, look to the government to solve the problem. The government will inevitably over-reach, yet other people will get upset, and responsibility will just bounce around in that growing bin of social problems we just can’t seem to find a solution for.

The wealthy, of course, will get helicopter ride sharing apps or buy their own, if they can afford it. The mass middle will get prescriptions for higher doses of Xanax, and the poor will just shake their heads and get by.

Oh, one last thing. The regulators will tell you that they need to regulate these companies in the name of public safety and consumer protection. You will hear all kinds of dire concerns about the bikes being stolen, set afire in the middle of the street, or used in the commission of crime. These are all just red herrings. What is the price of climate change? What is the value of your time sitting in commuter traffic? What is the value of giving people just another simple way to get a little exercise without joining a fancy gym?

Ride on.

Opening photo credit: iStock.com/tupungato

Contact: You may write the author at gary@gmoreau.com
Author’s website & blog: www.gmoreau.com