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2016-09-01 03:54:37 Commentary

Big cities in China are becoming increasingly congested. Although the government has been building more roads, it can hardly match the speed at which new cars are taking to the streets. Smog is a growing problem. People are installing air purifiers at home and sending their children abroad.

We wanted to help, and when we began our business we promised ourselves that we would do something tangible to ameliorate the problems of traffic jams and pollution. Bicycles seemed like a pretty good solution.

Thus, after working for nearly two decades in consumer goods and information technology I quit my job as the Shanghai Uber regional manager at the end of 2015, and became the CEO of Beijing Mobike Technology Co. Ltd. On April 22, 2016, we released our first bikes.

Mobike differs from traditional public bike systems that rely on docking stations since our bikes can be stored in any marked non-motor vehicle parking zones on the side of the road. Members use an app on their smartphones to locate the bike nearest them.

There are hundreds of cities worldwide that have implemented bike-share initiatives. In Oslo, the capital of Norway, the city government plans to combat greenhouse emissions by banning all private cars from the city center by 2019. Why not China?

With its reputation as a world-class metropolis, Shanghai seemed the best place to start. Our project is still relatively new, but we have already received a lot of support from the municipal government. 

They have begun marking more parking zones on the side of the road where people can leave their bikes, and they have pledged to deploy the police force if there was ever a large-scale theft. If everything works out, in addition to decongesting streets and cleaning up the environment, we could greatly help with city planning by recording and sharing our data with the municipal government.

Still, even with all the support and initial success, there are a few issues that have arisen: the number of bikes is too few; the GPS used to locate available bikes is sometimes inaccurate; some people take the bikes home with them or hide them out of view for later use.

Since our bike-share doesn’t rely on docking stations, we need customers to take the initiative and leave their bikes in easy-to-find, marked locations.

Nonetheless, I have a lot of faith in the future of the company. Once we’ve worked out the kinks Mobikes will help decongest Shanghai streets and work toward a greener city. But I’m also hoping they will encourage people to be more altruistic.

For instance, one thing that struck me when traveling abroad is how many people bus their trays in fast food restaurants after they have finished eating. This is not something everybody does in China, but why not?

I think the main reason is that until the relatively recent influx of fast food into the country, our restaurants have never provided a system that facilitated helping the next customer. Early Chinese fast food chains often had their garbage cans hidden off to the side of the restaurants, and bussers were always on hand to clean off the table.

But with the entrance to China of global fast food chains, I see more and more of our restaurants following the Western model of providing large easy-to-locate trash cans and signs requesting that customers clear their tables after eating.

We want to try and foster this same sort of good-faith system with Mobike. Since our bike-share doesn’t rely on docking stations, we need customers to take the initiative and leave their bikes in easy-to-find, marked locations. We have been playing around with several ideas, including a points system whereby points are added or subtracted depending on where a person parks their bike.

However, the sustainability of our project hinges on whether or not it can meet the needs of the majority. If we can only achieve that, all other problems will be easily solved. I believe that success will be socially significant — although people might be initially indifferent toward it, they’ll hop on board once they realize the convenience of bike-sharing. From there they’ll begin to see that it’s creating positive change in our city.

I believe Mobike has the capability to go global in the future. Manufacturing the bikes isn’t easy since they have so many components, but in China we have the advantage of low production cost. Cities like Paris or New York could never afford to make a bicycle of the same quality for the same price that we can in Shanghai.

We’ll see what the future holds, but for now I’m thrilled to be part of a company changing our country for the better. 

A Chinese version of this article first appeared in Sixth Tone’s sister publication, The Paper.

(Header image: A man rides a Mobike on a street in Shanghai, Aug. 17, 2016. Weng Lei/IC)