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Time to put the brakes on nation's fad for bike-sharing

By Ma Si | China Daily | Updated: 2017-06-02 07:19

Time to put the brakes on nation's fad for bike-sharing

Riders scan ofo bikes in Xi'an, Shaanxi province. [Photo/China Daily]

I had been a super fan of bike-sharing until I spent about 20 minutes searching for a functional bicycle on the streets and ended up disappointed.

Last week, I was in a morning rush to interview a CEO. Being just three kilometers away and with shared bikes scattered around the streets, I decided to embrace the latest byproduct of the sharing economy to get to the destination as soon as possible. After all, bikes are the most convenient tool amid a terrible morning traffic jam.

But I was discouraged to find that a line of bicycles in front of you does not mean that you can ride them as easily as bike-sharing companies had promised.

I approached one of the bicycles, and found that its mechanical lock did not work. Well, it happens, as a company can place thousands of bicycles around Beijing and it is natural to have one or two of them in trouble. I swiftly turned to another bicycle which was about 100 meters away.

But I was disappointed again, again and again, with the bikes all suffering from some sort of malfunction. They either had their seats too high and the adjusters were broken, the chain had fallen off, or the locks didn't work. What was worse was that two bike-sharing apps told me that the password needed to unlock a bike did not exist although I just got it by scanning the bicycle's QR code.

After trying eight bikes and failing to ride any of them, I stopped, and started pondering whether the sector is expanding too rapidly.

My experience was not an isolated one. Local media outlet Legal Evening News interviewed an employee of ofo, a major bike-sharing company, in March. He said the company had placed 10,000 bikes around a district in western Beijing and around 1,000 of them became dysfunctional in the first month.

It is possible that some of the bikes were vandalized by users or competitors, but an industry expert told me that the high damage rate is closely related to the design of the bikes.

The General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine also released a report on its official website, citing consumers' concerns over poor-quality shared bikes, which are prone to damage and accidents.

Recalling photos showing subway stations deluged by fleets of bicycles, I wondered whether it is high time for industry players to stop their aggressive expansion and focus on improving services. Or at least, they can ensure that the damage rate is not too high.

Currently, there are more than 30 bike-sharing startups, most of which popped up within just a year. Inspired by the car-hailing sector's phenomenal success in China, bike-sharing can be a good solution, as it theoretically allows consumers to borrow and return bikes literally anywhere, anytime.

They have become the latest darling of the capital market. Following $450 million in Series D funding, ofo announced fresh investment in April from Ant Financial, the nation's top e-payment provider. Meanwhile, its rival Mobike has attracted more than $300 million so far this year from a list of prominent names including Temasek, Hillhouse Capital, and Tencent.

Backed by deep-pocketed investors, they are accelerating their overseas expansion. Ofo, for instance, said it will has a presence in 200 Chinese cities and 10 foreign markets by the end of 2017.

But I am wondering whether such plans are too ambitious if they can't offer services good enough to win users' loyalty in the domestic market. I can't help but recall an industry insider who said that the bike-sharing market should not be driven by money. Instead, good service is always the key to success, and technology is the key to good service.

That morning, I gave up on bike-sharing and got to the destination by taxi. Unsurprisingly, I was late. As colorful shared bikes become a common sight in city streets, maybe it is time for industry players to stop rushing in and refine their services.

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