New cycle-share firms in China allow you to simply drop your bike wherever you want. They have caused colourful chaos – and world cities could be next
On a 30ft-wide screen in Hangzhou’s public bike share office, the counter ticks up relentlessly: 278,812 … 278,847 … 278,883 … Another 40 cycle rentals every couple of seconds. The system will easily top 350,000 before this bitterly cold winter day is out.
On the left of the giant screen, the world’s 15 biggest public bike shares are ranked. Thirteen of them are in China. (Paris is No 5 with 21,000 bikes, and London No 12, with 16,500). Hangzhou – an hour west of Shanghai by bullet train – is slightly larger than London by population, but its share system is five times the size. It comfortably tops the table with 84,100 cycles, almost twice as many as its nearest rival.
In many other large Chinese cities, though, it’s not the sturdy, official public hire bikes that stand out. It’s the rash of brightly coloured “dockless” share bikes, haphazardly piled on the pavements in their thousands.
Dubbed “Uber for bikes”, they are the product of a whole host of new startups, aggressively competing for territory and investment.