Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Lessons of Hangzhou's bike rental system

By Cui Shoufeng (China Daily) Updated: 2016-08-25 07:32

Lessons of Hangzhou's bike rental system

Among the many thoughtful services Hangzhou, capital of East China's Zhejiang province, will offer during the G20 Leaders' Summit on Sept 4-5, the improved bicycle rental service is a cherry on the top.

Among the 38,000 bicycles, about 10,000 new ones emblazoned with the G20 logo have reportedly been put into service at many bicycle stands around the city to provide "a safer and more comfortable cycling experience" for visitors. Aside from the new bicycle stands made of stainless steel and aluminum baskets, Hangzhou will also add an exclusive QR code to every bike on offer at 100 service points. This will allow borrowers to get a bike simply by scanning it. And some bike stands near hotels and meeting venues will be equipped with bilingual notices and an English audio system.

Efforts like these are not part of some vanity projects just for the G20 summit. The bicycle rental service has become an essential part of Hangzhou residents' daily life over the past eight years. Since it began trial operations in 2008, at least 84,100 bicycles have been rented about 665 million times, and a public bicycle can be used up to 37 times a day.

Some 175 cities across China, as far as Tacheng in Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, have been inspired to emulate Hangzhou's bike rental system. But not many of them have been as impressive in executing their plans, including Beijing, which was arguably the first Chinese city to introduce a bicycle rental system.

The lack of available bikes, rising maintenance costs and the frequent damage the bikes suffer have been haunting many cities desperate to reduce traffic jams by promoting green travel. Only Taiyuan, capital of North China's Shanxi province, could improve on Hangzhou's example. But since its operation relies totally on the local government's financial support, it is unlikely to sustain for long.

Hangzhou, on the other hand, makes a yearly profit of more than 20 million yuan ($3 million) just by selling its expertise in the bike rental service to other cities. Plus the advertisement fees collected from companies that seek to use bike stands for their offline campaigns, the city's public bicycle system can effortlessly make ends meet while continuing to provide more bikes and better services both to locals and tourists.

Other cities aspiring to improve their transportation systems should learn two things from Hangzhou's success. First, is public-private partnership, or PPP. The Hangzhou local government did support and provide subsidies for the public bicycle rental operation in the initial stages, but what kept the service afloat and eventually made it self-sustaining is the selling of expertise and advertising fees.

Besides, the Hangzhou Public Bicycle Transportation and Service Development Co, which runs the city's public bicycle rental system, is affiliated to the local public transportation group. That guarantees its daily operation is under professional supervision and maintenance, and provides public service in a market-oriented manner.

The other lesson is making the most use of local resources and advantages. As a celebrated tourism destination, Hangzhou is home to a slew of natural and cultural attractions that cannot be accessed by cars. Riding bicycles had become a popular and less expensive mode of transport for many tourists before the city got its metro in 2012.

In metropolises like Beijing and Shanghai, which have well-functioning public transportation networks, many commuters have to commute a long distance for work and are more likely to choose the subway. But they would be happy to see bicycle stands near the metro stations and their homes. The promotion of public bicycle rental business, nevertheless, should depend on the actual demand, not administrative orders.

The author is a writer with China Daily.


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