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UK is on the road to a cycling revolution

By Conal Urquhart | China Daily | Updated: 2017-09-30 08:00

A cycling revolution is happening in the United Kingdom. Few have noticed it yet, but Chinese short-time rental bicycles are appearing on British streets. As is the case in Chinese cities, they will soon be everywhere.

Riders need to be able to find a bike on every street corner for the business model to work, and the operators announce an increase in the number of bikes they offer, every week it seems.

Mobike leaped ahead of its main competitor, Ofo, this week with the announcement of a partnership with British Cycling, the governing body for British bike riding, to encourage 2 million new cyclists.

Mobike and the other new arrivals, Ofo, OBike and Urbo, find themselves in harmony with the UK government's health and transportation plans. There is a growing consensus that increasing physical activity improves the lives of millions and would reduce the burden on the National Health Service. One survey found that people who cycled to work were 40 percent less likely to die in the course of the study than others.

It is also much easier for the authorities to find more space for bicycles than it is to build more roads or create more public transportation capacity.

Julie Harrington, chief executive of British Cycling, said it is hoped that Mobike will provide access to bikes for people without one.

In return, British Cycling will facilitate Mobike's entry into 15 new towns. The company operates in Manchester and the Ealing area of west London and will open in Newcastle next month. Ofo operates in Cambridge and Oxford and has started in the Hackney area of east London.

As the scale of operations increases, so the scope for misuse and the phenomenon of bikes blocking public areas-as has happened in China-become much greater.

The prospect of more easily available bikes is wonderful for everyone who can take advantage of them, but many will find that the fear of cycling on the road with cars and trucks, which stopped them from buying a bike in the first place, will also prevent them from using one. In that case, bike-hiring plans must wait for the local authorities to carve out more bike lanes on Britain's narrow urban streets.

Many cities already have plans for renting and returning bikes to docking stations, which can be enhanced by the new dockless bikes.

One advantage the dockless bikes have is cost. The London Santander bikes-13,000 in total-are subsidized by the state and Santander Bank, but it remains one of the most expensive programs in the world. The new arrivals charge 75 percent less per half hour and do not require a state subsidy.

One wonders how the new bikes will make a profit, as existing programs do not. Even if the bikes do not need regular repairs, they will still need to be shepherded and kept presentable, which will involve staffing costs. A charge of 50 pence (67 cents) for 30 minutes means each bike can yield a maximum of 24 pounds sterling per day-if used continuously, which will almost never happen.

Maybe the commercial appeal is the data that the bikes will collect. The existing plan in London has smart docks but not smart bikes. The bicycles of Mobike and others transmit data all the time. This would be of use to city planners and academics, but would it be useful to advertisers, who would pay major amounts for it?

While the answers to these questions are worked out, the UK is likely to see a massive increase in bicycles available for anyone to hire at a low price. Reducing pollution and creating a fitter population would be quite a revolution.

The author is a senior editor at China Daily UK. Contact the writer at conal@mail.chinadailyuk.com.

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