Docked or Dockless? Public or Private? Lessons from Bikesharing Schemes in Hangzhou, China

Tina Huang
Gordon Gabelle
Start Date: 
May, 2018

Once known as the “kingdom of bicycles” back in 1970, residents in China used to rely heavily on biking for mobility. However, starting in 1995, bike possession and bicycle modal share have steadily declined in China to make way for economic growth and rapid motorization. Some Chinese cities started to revive city bicycling and to address the “last-mile” travel problem by launching public bicycle sharing (PBS) schemes through government sponsorships or public-private partnerships (PPP). However, the scale of PBS remained small until the introduction of the technology interruptive dockless bikesharing (DBS). Mobike - one of the biggest DBS companies – provided one million bikes in Chinese cities in the first six months, a number that already surpassed a ten-year government effort that only introduced 800,000 bikes. The speed of technology dissemination is rapid and only continues to accelerate. As of May, 2017, the actively used bikes from Mobike and Ofo add up to 16.45 million, and DBS companies are operating in more than 180 Chinese cities.

Compared with traditional public bicycles with fixed docking stations, the technology innovative dockless bikes do not require fixed docks, locks, or service terminals. Rather, DBS allows bikers to access services through the on-board GPS and mobile payment in smartphone apps. There is no doubt that DBS has revitalized urban bicycling, and has provided additional co-benefits, such as decreasing car usage and reducing traffic congestion. However, these private, dockless, and under-regulated DBS schemes have produced glaring issues since they operate in shared public spaces. As the DBS market is still in its initial stage, more than 45 DBS operators have tried to corner the market by flooding public spaces with over-supplied bikes. In addition, there are numerous cases in which dockless bikes have blocked pedestrian sidewalks. The privatization and financialization of traditionally government-sponsored public bike share services into a decentralized private bike share market epitomizes the neoliberalization of urban spaces while transforming access and control of urban spaces.

No academic literature has been published to understand the governance of DBS in China given the recent nature of this phenomena. Given this knowledge gap, this study aims to deconstruct factors that have fostered the recent technology induced DBS boom in China, and to uncover lessons and best practices from both traditionally public-sponsored docked PBS and private-market driven DBS. This study will also be the first kind to discover residents’ perception towards how (public) urban spaces have changed after the introduction of DBS. This, in turn, might be used to inform bikesharing governance to promote technology innovation and sustainable sharing mobility while valuing public spaces.