When I moved to Beijing from London two years ago, I was pleasantly surprised to find that cycling to work became much easier. I often had the run of this notoriously congested city’s wide, separated bike lanes.
Last spring, however, I noticed I was suddenly sharing the bike lane with hordes of wobbly beginners. These newcomers had been tempted on to the roads by a clutch of start-ups whose shared bikes can be unlocked using a smartphone — and parked anywhere.
Over the past two years, Ofo and Mobike, the industry leaders, have created 19 million new bicycles, becoming one of China’s most visible tech exports. Their bikes can be seen on the streets of London, Paris and more than 200 other cities around the world. The convenience they offer has brought millions in China on to two wheels for the first time. But they have not been welcomed by everyone.
Outside China Agricultural University, I met a bike repairman named Luo. Like many others in his line of work, he had moved from the countryside to the city in the 1990s as reforms opened up a booming informal economy, setting up his own repair business out of a silver tuk-tuk. Luo told me that of nine repairmen on campus two years ago, only he remained. He had lost four-fifths of his business, he said, because of bike sharing.
Why not join the bike-sharing platforms, who were recruiting mechanics? After all, the advertised pay for Mobike, about Rmb4,000 (?456) a month, is less than the pair earned before the advent of bike sharing — but more than they were earning last year. Yet for them, money was not the main concern.
Their concerns about losing flexibility seem well founded. I spoke to an Ofo worker who told me he worked from 7am to 6pm, with two hours for lunch. He pointed me towards a repair depot. On the way, I encountered a grisly trail of bike parts, with dismembered yellow cycles on either side.
Kuang and Luo are, in some ways, lucky. Part of the first wave of informal business owners in China, they made it in the city and now have university-educated children to support them. This means they have a choice as to whether to work or not. Still, if they decide to pack up their repair kits, a little piece of Chinese city life will go with them.