Government measures welcome, but rental bikes are a burden on public resources

RECENT changes in Shanghai’s rental bike scene, plus my own testing of some of the options on offer, has meant that I need to write about this fast-developing topic once more.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the bike rental situation in Shanghai, and mentioned the explosion of bikes on the streets and how they’re clogging up infrastructure as our city sailed effortlessly into the No. 1 spot, worldwide, for the number of rental bikes available.

To tell you the truth, I wasn’t very optimistic when I wrote my last column on the topic and was waiting for a government crackdown, perhaps drastically limiting the amount of players in the market, and the amount of bikes lying around.

There are now 620,000 rental bikes on the streets — operated by eight different companies — which offer no small challenge when it comes to places to park these unwieldy beasts when they’re not in use.

It definitely seems as though these companies are haphazardly adding as many bikes as they can, hoping to be the lucky one to grab market share and rule the streets. What about the impact on the functionality of our city? Who cares.

That’s why I was surprised to find out, last week, that the Shanghai government has proposed new support for the industry, including provisions to make more bike-only lanes when building new roads, and the creation and/or optimization of public spaces to allow more room to park bikes around subway stations and other high-use areas. This is definitely great news, especially for the environment. People are clearly more than willing to use their own engines to get from A to B, which is awesome.

But some residents are still less than happy with the situation. A recent survey of more than 2,000 found that around a quarter feel that these rental bikes are placing too much of a burden on public resources. I can see where they’re coming from.

This public discontent has led to some new government provisions that impact negatively on not just rental bike users, but all push-bike riders in certain areas of Shanghai.

Broken bikes a big problem

The Pudong New Area has now banned the riding and parking of all push-bikes on a number of main roads, specifically because of the rental bike problem. This will come as a shock to responsible users of push-bikes who may now need to adjust their daily routines if they include the affected areas.

I’ve tried a few of the rental bikes myself and found some are better than others. I’m quite tall, so the very popular Mobike, with their non-adjustable seats and small frames, are out of the question.

In the course of my research I’ve also found that broken bikes are a huge problem. One day I decided to go about my day using only rental bikes, but found I wasted a lot of time finding bikes that were actually operable.

In the morning I rented four bikes, which I quickly found were broken, before finding one that worked properly. That’s at least 10 minutes down the drain.

The high number of broken bikes can be blamed not only on shoddy build quality, but also on user neglect, which is why photographing abusive users of rental bikes has become a new pastime for some.

The government has also proposed shaming abusers of rental bikes publicly as a way of minimizing bad behavior.

The huge deposit fees are also a problem, although that might change soon since the government has also proposed lower or no deposit fees in the industry by way of a credit system.

Mobike, in particular, take quite a high deposit (around 300 yuan/US$43.48) before you can utilize their service.

Once I found out their bikes were not to my liking it took quite a bit of effort to get my money back — they make you physically write down a very long string of numbers found on your deposit receipt so you can provide it to them for a refund, as if they can’t find your money without it!

While these new government provisions are very promising, I still don’t feel comfortable getting rid of my own bike in lieu of renting.

Some places you’ll find have no bikes nearby to use, and many are broken.

It’s a good backup, though. Recently I was riding my own bike late at night when the tire exploded. I was able to leave it on the side of the road and use a rental bike to get home.

One thing is for sure, though, that the rental bike situation is changing on almost a daily basis. No doubt I’ll be back to update you all again in the near future!