In the Spring of 2017 the dockless shared bike system fronted by Ofo made its way to the campus of Mianyang Teachers College in China’s Sichuan Province. The craze had spread across China’s larger cities, and to Sichuan’s capital Chengdu earlier. At the time my students expressed pride in this “great Chinese invention”–and then were confused when I explained China didn’t invent bike sharing, as it was used in the US for some years. What Chinese companies had done was improve, as it were, a system already in existence.
The yellow bikes flooded the campus and were a great way for students to make their way from the main campus buildings to the front gate, 2km away. Yellow Ofos and silver and orange Mobikes also appeared around Mianyang city, with other companies stepping into the frenzy, too.
The concept relies on convenience: need a bike? Here’s a bike! It’s cheap and easy, use it and leave it wherever you are when you’re done. Yet problems in this system became apparent and only grew from there. My students, not used to questioning and critical thinking, missed the potential problems in their pitch to me, such as in order to keep costs down the company mass manufactured crappy bikes that broke down easily; someone has to be paid to keep the bikes repaired and in circulation in popular areas; and if people can, they will leave them anywhere–and I mean anywhere.
As it turns out, Ofo and the other bike share companies were not concerned with repairing bikes; they have left behind mass graves of misplaced, broken, and decaying bicycles throughout China. Furthermore, Ofo’s expansion to the world has now been retracted, with the company struggling to stay in business in China.
The number of bikes that littered the streets of Chengdu grew as if they reproduced like rabbits. By January 2018, the problems in their business model became glaring (to me), especially traveling through the central part of Chengdu. It’s as if they hadn’t thought–or cared–about how many people actually might use their product and the logistics involved in such an operation with so many bicycles, nor about the cost to the environment.
When I gazed in awe at their mass numbers, I realized this was a recurring pattern in how Chinese do business. Locally, at least, small businesses opened and closed all the time, sometimes with short lifespans. They had failed to do appropriate research on product, location, and target consumers.
Uncertain about the future of dockless bike sharing, below I posted a tribute to the bikes of Chengdu.