Bike Wars

Article by Serena Runyan

There are 30-some-odd bike sharing programs in China but the leaders of the pack are Mobike from Shanghai and Beijing’s Ofo, both with millions of monthly active users. In Xi’an you can find Ofo, Mobike, and Oxo bikes just about anywhere you look. I see them on Xigongda’s new campus, an hour’s drive outside of the city. I see them at bus stops on the highway. Kids, students and business people alike can be seen riding them anywhere, anytime.

Now you can see them in Singapore, the UK and the US as well, as the more successful companies have started expanding worldwide, including Bluegogo, another Beijing-based company that we have yet to see here in Xi’an.

Why bike share? Convenience, health, traffic decongestion, the environment. Founders of companies like Ofo, responsible for the bright yellow fleet of bikes around the city, aim to help solve problems of air pollution and heavy traffic with their bikes, and give China back its title of the “Kingdom of Bicycles.” Ofo, named for the word’s visual resemblance to a bike, was founded by several Peking University students who wanted to improve transit on campus, according to the Guardian. Now, these companies are a magnet for hundreds of millions of dollars from eager investors.

The beauty of these bikes is that you can leave the bike anywhere you’d like after using, as opposed to having to replace it at a docking station, like Xi’an’s city bikes and like other bike sharing programs around the world. You pay for the distance you go, and open them with simple a QR scan. Apps allow you to see the location of bikes around you. What’s not to love?

Of course this new phenomenon is not without its problems. In some cities, the sheer number of these bikes combined with flippant use has resulted in various traffic violations and problematic illegal parking. Companies have seen their fair share of bike vandalism. Cities like Shenzhen, Shanghai and Beijing are beginning to place restrictionson these “leave them anywhere” vehicles. In a country of cities developed in the car craze era, fitting in fleets of bicycles can prove challenging.

If you’re like me, you’ve seen these bikes, thought “that’s cool”, and have continued on with your life, either stuck to your bus routine or always running too late to try anything new. But I’m here to tell you that there are several reasons you should enjoy the plethora of bikes available to you, the obvious of which being the aforementioned health and environmental benefits along with unprecedented convenience of no-docking, internet-enabled bikes.

But there’s more. As these companies find themselves in the throes of what’s been deemed China’s “bike wars”, they are throwing out incentives by the handful to entice users. Bad for them, good for us pedestrians. Rides on any of these bikes are as cheap as they get, and for most people will be far cheaper than public transit.

In the near future, the start-ups will battle it out to claim the bike share throne. Mobike’s impressive bike technology, with features like airless tires, dust-roof paint, and city-specific modifications like cold-resistant batteries in Beijing, certainly make it stand out.

It remains to be seen, but for now, here’s what you need to know to make use of this crossroads of perfect Xi’an spring weather and cut-throat start-up culture before it’s too late.

All of the bike shares work in the same basic way. You should allow a little time for an initial set-up, but once you’re registered with a service, it’s very easy to use their bikes in the future. You’ll have to pay an initial deposit for many of these (potentially excluding ofo, see below), so while it’s tempting to register for all of them and have the city’s bike arsenal at your disposal, you might want to whittle down your choices to a brand you’ll be loyal to. Here are the steps for using any of these bikes, and some small differences between them that might sway your bike preferences:

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Serena is an oral English teacher at NPU from Boise, ID.