By Jett Williams
One of the unique phenomenons that has arisen in our current digital age is the shared transportation system. Bikes, electric scooters and hoverboards are ‘docked’ and can be used by anyone signed in to an app to move from point to point. Some brands of shared transportation must be left at designated docks, to charge or to be kept secure. Others, like Bird electric scooters, come with microprocessors and GPS location so they can be left anywhere the user pleases. On the surface, this looks like just another form of innovative 21st century transportation technology, but as is often the case with modern conveniences, it holds a worrying dark side.
Shared bicycles have been a concept for a long time. Amsterdam was the first city to try the concept in 1965 (Demaio). They painted bikes white and released them into circulation for the general public to use and leave for the next person. Unfortunately, within several months most bikes were found destroyed, stolen or dumped into one of Amsterdam’s canals. Nonetheless, it was an innovative experiment into urban transportation solutions, and the idea was later adopted in Denmark in the early 1990s (Demaio). This system featured bikes more purpose-built for city riding, with solid rubber tires and advertising plates in the wheels. The bikes could be gotten from coin-deposit-unlocking racks found throughout some of Denmark’s major cities. Unfortunately, this system suffered the same issue as the last, as bikes were often stolen for personal use, or damaged beyond repair.
The third generation of shared bikes began in 1996 at Portsmouth University in England (Demaio). These bikes were rented from an electronically locking rack with a debit or credit card, and featured modern advancements like onboard computers and gps systems. This iteration of the concept proved more successful than the last, because the renting system held users accountable to their bikes, preventing theft and misuse. Over the next ten years, bike-sharing would spread over Europe as different cities developed their own systems to fill holes in their public transportation (Demaio).
Bike sharing has a moderate impact on a cities transportation distribution and its emissions levels. In one case in France, 50% of trips made by other forms of transportation were made instead by shared bicycle (Demaio). 46% of inhabitants were more likely to use a bike-share than use a personal vehicle in 2009 (Demaio). Evidently, bicycle-sharing has lots of benefits when implemented correctly. But every solution comes with costs, and sometimes too much of a good thing can get out of hand.
China’s bike-share program is a perfect example of this. In the 1980s, 63% of commutes in Bejing were made by bike. In 2014, the number dropped to just 17.8% (Campbell). With increased modernization came a lack of interest in bikes. But in 2017, bike-share programs made their way to China, where they exploded in popularity. Brands flooded major Chinese cities with between 16 and 18 million bikes in the last two years, saturating the market with cheap rental bikes (Campbell). But these bikes don’t follow the third-generation bike-share business models that focus on rental fees and locking docks. Instead, the bikes stay where they are left, until the next person picks them up and uses them. Users pay via a smartphone app, and are charged pennies for their rides.
By the middle of 2018, the Chinese bike-share program had reached peak bubble. The third-largest sharing program, BlueGoGo, went bankrupt due to a lack of profits and money owed to manufacturers (Haas 1). Bikes were being destroyed, abandoned, and left in areas where they were no longer needed. It was common to see photos of mounds of bikes piled up in front of business, tourist areas or other destinations that people flock to. Elsewhere, massive dumps were being filled with the colorfully painted bikes as a tribute to the hubris of the manufacturers and the lack of foresight. At this time, Shanghai had roughly 1.5 million bikes on it’s streets (Haas 2).
It is easy to look at this failure as purely the fault of the company’s management, who invested much to heavily too quickly without allowing enough profit margin to pay the bike manufacturers back for their product. But if we look at this issue through other lenses, we can see that there were a number of factors that played a role in this popped bubble.
The first is the idea of a population and it’s commons. A population can be any population, on a global level down to a small town or village. The ‘commons’ are the shared resources, lands and items that belong to all people collectively (Robbins). Commons can be anything, from natural gas and water to the air we breathe and the plants that inhabit our forests and gardens.
Typically, humans attempt to maintain their commons through regulation and control of damage (Robbins). The best example of this is with CO2 and emissions caps and taxes. While some corporations can skirt around these regulations for the most part, they were put in place to protect the common air that we all breathe.
However, much of the time humans put unnecessary burdens onto the commons, either through overpopulation or increased consumption of goods and materials. This is what is known as the “Tragedy of the Commons (Robbins).” Typically, these burdens are not needed for the survival of the human species. This can be seen through issues like overpopulation, over dependence on fossil fuels and clear cutting forests so the land can be used for agriculture. These happenings are known as tragedies because they could have been avoided.
Viewed through this lens, bike-sharing bikes are a part of the commons. They are a resource available to every citizen of the cities where they have taken a foothold, provided you have pennies to your name and a credit card or smartphone. They are a shared resource, similar to air and water, with the obvious exemption that they are man-made and man-maintained.
The unnecessary burden placed on these commons is not so much a burden as it is a misuse. The Chinese began to take these bikes for granted and treat them with the same respect that humanity as a whole treats it’s environmental commons. Bikes were left to rust in the streets, abandoned once broken, and stacked in large piles outside of popular destinations. The tragedy of these commons was not their depletion, but their abuse and misuse.
Realistically, this is just par for the course for humanity. Take any commons, leave it unregulated and without protection, and see what becomes of it. There were no incentives to leave a shared bike in better condition than you found it, and no real repercussions for abusing the bikes or leaving them in a state of malfunction. For this reason, like so many of our other natural commons, the resource was depleted.
Why then does bike-sharing work in so many other areas? Why has it only really failed (in modern practice) in China? The answer can be found in the commons. When resources are scarce and exclusive, they are treasured and protected. Examples of this include endangered species, the shrinking ice caps and the smaller, more exclusive ride-share programs found in other countries. When there is enough of a shared resource that everyone has access all of the time, typically the resource is abused and not maintained until some damage has been done. Examples of this include air, soil and the massive number of bikes introduced to China’s cities. Because there was such an astronomical number of bikes, noone valued them like they do in other nations, and the common resource suffered as a result.
Another lens through which we can better understand what happened in China is Political Economy. This lens has several facets, ranging from capitalism and market dynamics to government regulations and the commodification of nature. In simplest terms, one of the major problems with modern capitalism is that the capital, which can be products, money or other items, becomes concentrated in a few major areas, leading to instability and eventual collapse (Robbins).
On one hand, you could look at what happened in China as a classic failure of capitalism, taking the form of the bubble that grows and grows until popping, as we have seen with countless other trends, products and markets. The amount of bikes in China’s cities was so far beyond any previous attempts at bike-sharing. America’s largest bike-sharing brand, based in New York, has 10,000 bikes available (Campbell). London has 16,500 bikes, and Paris has 21,000 (Campbell). In stark comparison, Bejing has over 2.4 million bikes (Campbell). Clearly, this happened due to the opportunistic bike-share brands in China trying to get a leg up on competition by saturating the streets with their bikes, so no one would have to look far to catch a ride. As many other bubbles did before it, the saturation reached critical mass and the bikes became more of an eyesore then a benefit to the community
You could also look at it as a failure on the part of the government to recognise where all this was going, and regulate the market before it reached critical mass. Other forms of bike-sharing have for the most part been commissioned by cities as a solution to transportation woes, or otherwise heavily regulated (Demaio). But no such safeguards were put into place in China, leading to the problem we see now.
The Chinese government recently began taking steps to control the damage of the bike-share bubble, but it’s efforts will need to be ramped up to truly fix the problem at hand, and it will be a long time before China is able to fully alleviate the damage that has been done. Some actions that local governments have taken include confiscating derelict, abandoned or illegally parked bikes and crafting new laws to prevent any startup from flooding the streets with userless bikes (Taylor 2). They’ve also began thinking of ways to redistribute the excess of bikes. Some are being refurbished and distributed to smaller neighboring towns, to limit the pile-ups that occur when lots of bikes are left in the same spot in big cities. Some of the bikes are being recycled into raw materials, while still more have been cubed and sent off to landfills (Taylor 2).
China’s bicycle sharing fiasco may seem like a one-off occurrence, something that we can gawk at online and laugh about with our friends, but it can teach us a lot about the intersection of human nature and our common shared resources, as well as market dynamics and global political economies. As with other common shared resources that are incredibly abundant, China’s shared bikes were neglected, abused and taken advantage of by the communities that benefited off them. In the end, this was a contributing factor to their failure, as it will be with our globe if we continue along the same route. And, it showed us yet another example of the failures of capitalism when a market is oversaturated with a good or product. Because so many bikes were introduced so quickly and the government failed to address the issue in time, the bubble swelled until it burst, leaving behind the scrapped remains of millions of bicycles.
I think that the bike-share concept definitely has merit, and I would like to see it done again, with more oversight and less saturation. We’ve seen it work in other countries, with impressive effects on personal vehicle usage and emissions statistics. But in China, there is no question that bike-sharing came too fast and with too much intensity to be sustainable.
Campbell, Charlie. “China's Bike-Sharing Fever Has Reached Saturation Point.” Time, Time, 2 Apr. 2018, time.com/5218323/china-bicycles-sharing-economy/.
Demaio, Paul. “Bike-Sharing: History, Impacts, Models of Provision, and Future.” Journal of Public Transportation, vol. 12, no. 4, 2009, pp. 41–56., doi:10.5038/2375-0901.12.4.3.
Haas, Benjamin. “Anger as Chinese Bike Sharing Firm Shuts up Office with Riders' Deposits.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 17 Nov. 2017, www.theguardian.com/world/2017/nov/17/anger-as-chinese-bike-sharing-firm-shuts-up-office-with-riders-deposits.
Haas, Benjamin. “Chinese Bike Share Graveyard a Monument to Industry's 'Arrogance'.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 25 Nov. 2017, www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/nov/25/chinas-bike-share-graveyard-a-monument-to-industrys-arrogance.
Robbins, Paul, et al. Environment and Society: a Critical Introduction. Wiley-Blackwell, 2014.
Taylor, Alan. “The Bike-Share Oversupply in China: Huge Piles of Abandoned and Broken Bicycles.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 22 Mar. 2018, www.theatlantic.com/photo/2018/03/bike-share-oversupply-in-china-huge-piles-of-abandoned-and-broken-bicycles/556268/.
Taylor, Alan. “China Is Still Sorting Through Its Colorful Bike-Share Graveyards.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 1 Aug. 2018, www.theatlantic.com/photo/2018/08/china-abandoned-bike-share-graveyards/566576/.