Analysis: Are bike-sharing schemes a smart city’s friend or foe?

Analysis: Are bike-sharing schemes a smart city’s friend or foe?

Are bike-sharing schemes a smart city's friend or foe?
Bicycles from various bike-sharing schemes pile up in Shanghai.

There is much to be said for getting urbanites to switch to bike-sharing schemes for their daily commutes, but city authorities need to maintain some control, as Jessica Twentyman reports. 

This week, smart bike-sharing provider Mobike received a ‘Champions of the Earth’ award, the UN’s highest environmental honour, at the third annual UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya.

The award was presented to Mobike founder and president Hu Weiwei, in recognition of her company’s achievement in combining technology and an innovative business model to improve urban eco-mobility while addressing the challenge of urban air pollution.

Mobike operates a ‘pick-up-and-ride scheme’ that doesn’t rely on docking stations, unlike San Francisco’s Ford GoBike scheme or London’s Santander-sponsored ‘Boris’ bikes. Instead, its bikes are tracked by GPS, can be picked up and left virtually anywhere and are located, paid for and unlocked by users using their smartphones.

Since it launched in China in 2016, Mobike’s 200 million users worldwide have collectively cycled over 18.2 billion kilometres, equivalent to reducing CO2 emissions by more than 4.4 million tons, or taking 1.24 million cars off the road for a year, the company claims. The service is available today in 200 cities globally, and staged its European launch earlier this year, starting with the UK cities of Manchester and Salford and, more recently adding the London Borough of Hackney.

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Smart bike connectivity

Mobike is a great example of an IoT-based company with the potential to change the way we move around our congested, polluted cities. IoT connectivity doesn’t just help users access the service, but also enables the company to monitor the condition of every bike in its fleet, identify demand  ‘hot spots’ and redistribute bikes accordingly.

Each bike is connected to the Mobike IoT network via its GPS-embedded smart lock, with connectivity provided by different companies in different regions. In the US, for example, Mobike has announced it will be using telco AT&T’s 4G cellular network, combined with IoT modems from Qualcomm to stay connected. In the UK, connectivity is provided by Vodafone.

Read more: Greentomatocars joins IoT network mapping air pollution in London

The downside of bike-sharing success

However, there is a more worrying side to all this. While Mobike may be the largest operator of its kind, it’s by no means the only one. Streets in China have been flooded with shared bikes as venture capitalists have poured money into different schemes, all seeking a slice of the same potentially lucrative pie and drastically cutting prices to stake their claim.

In Shenzhen, for example, you’ll see orange bikes from Mobike alongside yellow ones from Ofo and light blue ones from Xiaoming Bike. The first two companies have already made their first forays into the US and Europe, as well as other parts of Asia. Others, including Hong Kong’s GoBee and Singapore’s OBike, are doing the same.

Local governments in these regions need to keep a careful eye on the situation. The biggest problem seems to be that, unlike their dock-based counterparts, these dockless schemes are sometimes introduced without the say-so or oversight of city authorities.

In China, the consequences of that lack of control have become all too clear, with a glut of offerings resulting in many bikes going unused and cluttering up urban spaces. That’s not very environmentally friendly and it annoys city dwellers, who find themselves forced to negotiate stacks of bikes close to the entrances to metro stations and car parks.

These schemes may also pose a competitive threat to established bike-sharing services, which typically do have the right local permissions in place to operate, but face the extra costs associated with keeping docking stations maintained.

It’s a situation that is already challenging local authorities in Munich, Amsterdam and Paris, according to a recent Bloomberg report. It needs careful monitoring everywhere. While Mobike’s contribution to cutting carbon emissions is to be applauded, it’s clear that cities can sometimes have too much of a good thing – and after all, nobody ever claimed that the path to smart city status would be an entirely smooth ride.

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