bike sharing

When I wrote about the sharing economy a few weeks ago, I focused on two main aspects:

  • the benefits and controversies surrounding this new economic model
  • the difference between the sharing economy and sharing the economy, that is, between the companies that benefit from it (I specifically mentioned Airbnb and Uber) and the communities that support it

But just a few days after that post was published I read an article in Wired Magazine (still my favorite) about the expansion of Chinese bike-sharing startup Mobike, that has grown from a boring bike-sharing service into more of a lifestyle in the city in just two years.

That caught my eye, and doing a little more research into the topic I found that Mobike was not alone in that market, and that other similar companies -like the Chinese Ofo, the Danish Donkey Republic or the Singaporean oBike– are undergoing similar growth and expanding into more and more new markets (at least all over Europe).

I also found a number of things that I thought fascinating:

  • whereas Airbnb doesn’t own any rooms or Uber doesn’t own any cars, these bike-sharing companies do own the bicycles, which presents us with a new twist on the sharing economy -one where users share something they use, not something they own
  • whereas the traditional bike-sharing schemes in place in many cities in Europe have (mostly) been launched (or somehow supported) by the local authorities, these are purely based on private initiatives, startup-style
  • whereas the traditional bike-sharing schemes in place in many cities in Europe are based on the idea of docking stations (users have to go to specific locations for bike pick-up and drop-off) these are dockless -which makes them more technology platforms than logistics companies
  • the growth of convenient, affordable and low carbon methods of travel, which improve the urban transport environment by reducing congestion and emissions

Oh, I forgot to mention that these new startups undercut the prices of those traditional bike-sharing schemes -which in some cases means savings of as much as 75% for users. So, this new model is not only green, it is also cheap!

(No, I don’t forget that the hundreds of discarded bicycles in some cities in China is causing nightmares to local authorities, but those environmental collateral effects are not the topic of this post)

But what I probably found the most fascinating side of Wired’s story (amplified by my research) was the fact that these bike-sharing schemes that were spreading throughout the world originated in China. Not in Silicon Valley, nor London, nor Berlin. China.

Don’t get me wrong. I am no expert on China: I have never been there, I have not studied their language or culture, I hardly know any Chinese people. But I have a growing interest in all those things and try to be informed. Thus, I have observed a transformation that I find truly awe-inspiring, because

  • first, China used to be the go-to place for cheap mass-production items (mostly plastic) that filled our stores and our homes
  • then, they seemed to specialize in producing knock-offs (copies of items that sell for less than the original)
  • more recently, it has become a hardware haven capable of manufacturing high-quality products to satisfy the growing appetites of an over-connected world
  • now, they have grown into a cradle of innovation and entrepreneurship, able to attract some of the best and brightest minds and thus to launch new and attractive products/services -usually for a fraction of the cost we used to pay for similar products/services

In that context, and given that China has tremendous potential for growth (with 14 cities that have more than 5 million inhabitants), who knows what additional innovations will come from the world’s longest continuous civilization. I, for one, will make sure to pay close attention (and to enjoy their innovative products and services).

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