round two years ago I cheated on my old faithful Wolf-brand bicycle, with a newer, flashier model hanging around on a street corner, quietly making itself available – for a reasonable price for a bit of fun. I went back to my own bike afterwards, telling myself it had just been a joyride, a flight of fancy. Yet over the next two years I would find myself on these “on demand” contraptions multiple times a day, until, as with all relationships, it came to an acrimonious end.
The early days of hire bikes being put on to the streets of Beijing and other big cities across China now seem like another era. So ubiquitous are the bikes that it’s hard to imagine what the streets, sidewalks, cycle lanes, apartment block corridors and highway underpasses looked like without a sea of multicolored frames and wheels.
Every couple of days it seemed, a new contender would enter the market by dumping dozens or hundreds or thousands of bikes onto the streets, neatly lined up like ridable dominoes. Orange, yellow, blue, red, green, rainbow-colored and even metallic gold. The colors have clearly all been used up as the latest company to tempt us with their cycles has had to go for white.
The bikes are called “shared bikes” and are meant to be part of the sharing economy that will transform everything. Yet along with almost all the other examples of the sharing economy in China (umbrellas, gyms big enough for one person, phone charging lockers, basketball dispensers) they’re just goods provided by a company for hire. Perhaps the term “sharing” might make people treat them in a more community-minded way. We would see.
At first I was an occasional user. It was a good idea to take one of the bikes if going out in Sanlitun. It’s a hotspot for bike theft and if I ended up having a few too many drinks I could just take a taxi home.
Then maybe I’d be heading across town and needed to arrive looking presentable so wouldn’t want to cycle the whole way. I’d take the subway, but ride a bike the short distance to the station to trim the journey time down. The bikes became more and more a part of my day. I signed up for multiple schemes, joking to myself that the deposits I was putting down would form my pension.
My old bike spent longer periods chained to the radiator inside the door to my apartment building. Sometimes a handy place for neighbors to stack their cardboard boxes. I’d walk past it as I fired up the apps to see what bikes were outside. Around four months ago the main map app I use integrated the two main bike schemes so that I didn’t even have to go from app to app. This was the high point of ease. I could hire multiple bikes for friends and we’d roll from bar to bar. There was an endless supply of bikes everywhere.
But spanners started to be thrust in the works. In the compound where I live, more people, including the security guards, were securing the bikes with their own locks. Or leaving them unlocked, only to pounce on me if I approached and tried to activate the bike for my own use. I started getting in arguments with people. The hire bikes had always been kept in people’s gated compounds or work places and even in their homes. The influx of ever more bikes devalued them and led to people’s less-than-careful treatment.
My old bike repairman packed up, and his vacated plot became yet another parking place for the bikes. Shame he wasn’t a repairman for the hire bikes themselves as they are now falling apart. Some of them are clearly vandalized. You’ll see several together looking violated with their inner tubes pulled out and trailing on the ground, but many others have simply broken with use due to their cheap components.
I developed a quality control assessment before trying to unlock a bike. Did it have a saddle, pedals, chain, brakes, two wheels? In certain parts of town there would be plenty of bikes, but I’d spend upwards of 10 minutes sifting through for one that could actually be ridden and unlocked, meaning it would have been quicker to walk. Beijing has recently put a ban on any more bikes being put on the streets, so the existing stock is only going to deteriorate. Then just this week, the scheme I used the most (it has seats you can adjust to a height that doesn’t have your knees bashing into your ears) has created a new app. But it’s no longer in my app store because I’m foreign (though that particular company does have an app in my home country, the UK).
And with that, I’m dismounting from the whole concept. The shouting, time wasting and danger of not knowing each bike’s peculiarity when on the roads. The Wolf is coming out of hibernation and is going to rejoin the pedal power pack.