Saturday, June 3, 2017

Bike Share in Beijing - Guest Blog by the Cycling Yogi

Bike sharing here in China uses a tiny fraction of the infrastructure required in America. The overhead and equipment are both simpler and smaller than programs in American and European cities. They use cheap bikes, and count on responsible behavior by their patrons. The cost of living in China may be 1/3 or 1/4 of what it is in the States, but bike shares in China are more like 1/50th of what they cost in America. The bottom line is that these bright yellow bikes are everywhere, and anyone can pick one up for 15c per hour. And anyone does.

Chaotic. Practical. It's a whole different kettle of fish. (I know there's a pun in there about fish without bicycles, but I'm not sharp enough at the moment to articulate it.)

There are no docking stations. You can leave the bike on the street anywhere in the city (6,000 square miles!). You don't need a credit card because the dominant social media system, called "WeChat" has a built-in payment system that everybody (everybody!) uses. People use WeChat to pay their utility bills and their rent and to transfer money in the family or to a friend. Less commonly, they use WeChat for shopping. There are no bank fees. (Now there's a radical commie idea - the state promotes commerce by making banking cheap and convenient.)

The reason bike sharing is so cheap and convenient is that lots of people use it, and the reason lots of people use it is that it's so cheap and convenient. My home town of Philadelphia inaugurated its Indego bike share program two years ago, and recently expanded to 1,500 bikes for a few downtown neighborhoods. Beijing has 200,000 bikes spread all over everywhere.  

American Bikeshare programs count on subsidies from the city and sometimes from environmental foundations as well. Beijing's several competing programs all run at a profit.  Savor the irony: "Communism" has come to mean that the state leaves the most profitable franchises for startup entrepreneurs. Meanwhile, "capitalism" has come to mean that the state collects tax money from a million working people and channels it to Deserving and Efficient Multinational Corporations. Philadelphia's bikeshare is run by Independence Blue Cross. New York's is run by Citibank.  Washington's Capital Bikeshare is subsidized by both local and Federal money, which goes to Alta Bike, a division of MotiviateCo.

Every American bikeshare program uses bikes that are overbuilt, foolproof, and practically indestructible.  I'm guessing the cost is over $1,000 per bike in quantity, though I've been unable to find cost figures. China's bikeshare bikes are sturdy but very simple, one speed, and I'm told they cost less than $50 each.

(Note from Biking Yogini - yes US costs are high. See the following from the Capital Bikeshare page on Wikipedia: In May 2011, it cost $41,500 to install a station with six docks and $49,300 each for larger stations with 14 docks. Each bicycle cost about $1,000, and the annual operating cost per bike was $1,860.)



China pays $50 for a bike. America pays $1,000+ for a bike + insurance against breaking + security against theft.

Chinese bikeshares are slow and clunky, but not noticeably slower than their American counterpart. It doesn't seem to matter so much in China, where the custom is to ride more slowly. The set of American cycle enthusiasts contains a core of Velosport athletes; but in China, cyclists are students and workers and shopkeepers and businessmen, all of whom seem to saunter along at ~7 mph.

The System

Every rental bike has a wheel lock and a QR code in the tag on the back. Scan the code in your phone, and get a combination to unlock the bike. Ride where you want to go.  Lock the bike on the street. Scan the code again to log out.  1 Chinese yuan is deducted from your account, about 15c.  

Once you know the code, what's to stop you from keeping the bike as your own? The main deterrent to theft in this system is, who wants a bright yellow bike with one speed and no resale possibility, with the constant possibility that your license number will be spotted on the street and you'll serve jail time? But my guess is that good will also plays a role, and that it just isn't worth stealing something and calling it "mine" when you can have one any time you need it for 15 cents. Perhaps the bikeshare entrepreneurs were smart enough to factor in a high theft rate on startup, but once the greed of a few thieves was satisfied, they were overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of bikes on the street.

If there's such a thing as a "Chinese national character," then part of it is being practical and short-sighted, doing things in the easiest and cheapest way. I've seen the down side of this short-sighted culture in the form of haphazard construction and consumer goods that fall apart. But as a model for a bike share system, there's a good case to be made for the "quick and dirty" approach.


China is developing at a dizzying pace that no one can keep track of, let alone plan. There has been a huge migration of half a billion people from rice paddies to the cities. America has 5 cities with over 1 million people; China has more than 150. Currently, the most common vehicle on the streets of China is the electric bicycle, which can be purchased for a few hundred dollars. But there's much more diversity in vehicles, with lots of little electric vehicles, lots of small electric trucks, taxis and Ubers as well as motorcycles and cars. I'm predicting that the next wave will be self-driving electric cars. They don't add to the city's choking pollution problem, and you don't have to own them (or park them!)--you will be able to call one like an Uber, except that the car that appears will drive itself. A huge breakthrough will come when the fleet of self-driving cars comes to dominate traffic flow, and they are able to talk to each other on the internet and spread out to avoid creating traffic jams. This vision may come to pass first in China, where private car ownership is both less affordable and less entrenched than the West, and where central planning is not disdained by ideology.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

2017 Errandonnee - A Tale of Three Cities

After the warmest February ever, with weeks in the 60s and 70s, it was a shock to have snow and ice in March. So when the Errandonnee started with a few temperate days, I hastened to complete bicycle errands whilst the weather was favorable.

March 20, 2017

In a classic trip chaining scheme, I planned a route with many errands in a 10-mile loop. From my home in Arlington’s Westover area I rode to George Mason and Lee Highway for the post office and bank; then along 22nd St and Lee Highway to the yoga studio. From there I took Quincy St to the central library and then along Fairfax and Clarendon Blvd. to Trader Joe’s. I returned along Wilson to the Ballston Sport & Health, looping around to the Glebe Rd entrance to park my bike. I then took Glebe Rd to the entrance to the Custis Trail, where I exit on John Marshall Dr. I like the challenge of working out the most efficient route!

#1 – personal business – stopped at the post office to mail a letter.



#2 – non-store errand – stopped at the bank to deposit money in my daughter’s account.


 #3 – “work” – I wasn’t working, but I stopped at my place of work – Sun and Moon Yoga Studio – to drop off checks for my substitute teachers – one for the previous week when I was sick; the other for the coming week when I had travel plans.


 #4 – non-store errand – stopped at Central library to return DVDs that occupied me while I was home sick for a week.


 #5 – store – went to Trader Joe’s for sauerkraut in my attempt to eat fermented foods daily.


 #6 – personal care – stopped at the gym and lifted weights, but was disappointed that the steam room was out of order. Forgot to take a photo, so here is a link to Sport & Health.

March 21, 2017

#7 – arts and entertainment – rode to Courthouse to see Get Out. Definitely worth the 9-mile ride.


 March 24, 2017

#8 – personal care – Drove up to Philly on Thursday, so Friday morning took the tandem with the Cycling Yogi to Magu Yoga for class (2 miles round trip). Forgot to take a photo, but am including a link to the studio, where I had a great class to get out the kinks from my car trip. That afternoon took the train up to NY to see the Paul Taylor company and spent the night at my friend Sarah’s house in Brooklyn.

March 25, 2017

#9 – social – In Brooklyn, Sarah and I rode from her apartment near the Cortelyou subway stop to Coney Island – my first visit there – 10.5 miles round trip. I borrowed her partner Kevin’s bike, which I found to be supremely comfortable. The illusion of me standing on my bike seat was unintentional, but quickly noticed on Facebook by an astute Coffeeneur! Took the train back to Philly that afternoon.



 March 26, 2017

#10 – wild card – When my daughter moved to Philly she took over use of my Philly bike. The Cycling Yogi had the good fortune to win a bike in a raffle, but I had never ridden it. It is really a bit too large for me and has drop handlebars, which I never use. They make me nervous! So I totally miscalculated how long it would take me to ride from Mt. Airy to Center City. My hands were cramping because the reach of the brakes was really too much and the ride into Center City is predominantly downhill – something I enjoy under normal circumstances, but was a bit hair-raising on an unfamiliar bike. Long story short – plans had to be adjusted because it took me so long. So I found a nice coffee shop (a little Coffeeneuring scouting) and had an espresso and a snack while waiting to meet my daughter for a later movie than we’d originally planned.


 #11 – arts and entertainment – Had parked the bike by the movie theater where I met my daughter to see I am Not Your Negro (11 miles for the ride). From there we walked about a mile and had dinner, then stopped at the Philly AIDS thrift store. Then we headed on foot for Jefferson Station where she could get the trolley home and I dashed to the SEPTA without a second to spare to take the bike back by rail. On the newer SEPTA trains there are long seats that flip up and bikes can be easily stored. There is even a seat belt to hold the bike in place!


 March 27, 2017

#12 – personal business – After driving home from Philly that morning, I decided to take a walk trip to complete the Errandonnee, giving my dogs a chance to finally get in on the act. We walked just over a mile (round trip) to the Westover library, where I had Lisa See’s new novel on hold and then to the post office to mail in my taxes. It was 68 degrees and sunny, making me believe that Spring is here to stay.



 So – I had a grand total of about 42.5 miles biking (using 4 different bikes) and 2 miles walking. With good weather and trips planned for the rest of the week, I’m certain there will be more bike errands to come, but this concludes my official 2017 entry.