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Wheels turning for new bike-rental idea

2010-12-15 13:26

Capital city looking for ways to get more people cycling

Netizens have been excitedly debating a new proposal from the Beijing municipal government for a bicycle-sharing system to ease the city's traffic gridlock.

The idea calls for 1,000 locations to be opened with more than 50,000 bikes for commuters who might otherwise clog up the highways with cars.

"If the local government is paying for such a system this time, I will wait in expectation of the changes," said Wang Yong, president of the Beijing Bicycle Rental Co, who started his business five years ago.

Some netizens said the policy to encourage the increased use of bicycles is greener and cheaper than promoting public transportation.

Others, though, have been describing unhappy experiences in renting bicycles in the city and are saying that the proposed system will fail if there are too few locations where bikes can be picked up and dropped off.

About a month ago, Fangzhou, the largest bicycle rental company in Beijing went bankrupt as it tried to scale up its inventory to 20,000 bikes.

It was the latest casualty in the troubled bike rental industry that began in the city in 2006.

Four years after bike rentals were first championed in Beijing, only two rental firms remain. Wang, from Beijing Bicycle Rental Co, said he had to cut his sites from 100 to 20 last year in a cost-cutting initiative.

"It should never be a business," he said. "It should be a public welfare initiative that should be completely free and led by the government."

During his years at the helm of the company, Wang has been battling a lack of interest in renting bikes in the city.

According to statistics from the city's traffic department, the capital deserved its nickname of "city of bicycles" in the 1980s when about 60 percent of the population commuted to work by bike. Today, the number is about 18 percent, according to Beijing Daily.

Friends of Nature released a report named Bike for a Better Beijing in September after five years' research, pointing out the major problems faced by the city's cyclists: Motor vehicles are the priorities in the design of Beijing's road systems, making it dangerous to cycle in the city; and lack of parking lots designed for bikes makes it harder to protect bikes from theft.

"Support from the government is good news for those of us who want an effective bike sharing system," said Li Bo, head of the NGO.

Chao Chun, 28, who has been commuting to work by bike for more than half a year said doing so is "a battle of wits and courage". Chao, who lives 10 kilometers away from his workplace, spends about 50 minutes on his bike mainly along the Third Ring Road.

"Every day, I have to twist my way past buses that are drawing in or out of bus stops, taxis that are picking up or unloading passengers, and private cars that are parked in the bicycle lane," he said.

He said the city's road system is geared toward the car and not the bicycle.

Chao said he used to prefer renting bikes over using his own because of concerns about getting his stolen. He said he only got to do so a couple of times before the company went bankrupt.

But while bicycle rental companies have had a difficult time in the capital, they have fared better elsewhere.

In 2007, the local government in Paris launched a system named "Velib" that had about 1,500 rental and drop-off sites spaced 200 meters apart in the city center.

Gong Tian, a 23-year-old PhD student in Paris, said the system is more convenient than ones in Beijing.

"You just swipe your bank card to pay the deposit and you can take the bike away," said Gong. "It is free for the first 30 minutes."

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