Urban Transport Challenges and the Chinese Bicycle-Sharing

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by Zubair Lone

Recently, a map created using population data compiled by NASA reveals that cities cover less than 3% of our planet’s land surface but are already home to more than half its population. On top of that, cities all over the world are getting over-populated year by year.

Cities are locations with high concentration and accumulation of economic activity. The number of people attracted by the opportunities and conveniences cities offer is increasing rapidly.

The rapid urbanization and an ever-increasing influx of people have generated an unprecedented mix of peculiar problems.

One of the most important problems related to urban areas is of transport. In the context of Indian cities, the urban transport problem largely exhibits in two forms. One, too much traffic demand for existing road space. Two, growth rate of traffic is greater than the possible growth rate of road space.

Among the notable consequences of the urban transport problem are congestion and parking difficulties, longer commuting hours, difficulties for non-motorized transport (walking and cycling), loss of public space, environmental impacts and injudicious fuel consumption, high maintenance costs, accidents and safety-related issues.

From a productivity perspective, the overall productivity of a city is highly dependent on the efficiency of its transport system to move people and goods. Congestion and traffic jams mean students, workers and goods reaching late- cutting short productive hours of study, work or business respectively. Long commuting has also been linked with several social and health problems like isolation and obesity, according to a recent study of Washington University, USA.

Moreover, by often restricting freedom of movement, transport problems further lead to the denial of a host of basic rights – denial of right to education to a student, right to livelihood to a worker and a businessperson, right to healthcare to a patient; and right to healthy environment to citizens, in general.

Many aspects of the urban transport challenge are allied with the dominance of personal cars. The second half of the 20th century saw the adaptation of many cities in the West to automobile circulation. It was seen as a powerful symbol of modernity and development. Highways were constructed, roads were enlarged, and parking spaces were set often disrupting the existing urban fabric. Developing countries followed suit.

However, from the 1980s, motorization started to be seen more negatively. Several cities implemented policies to limit automobile circulation by dissuasion policies, prohibition of circulation in city centres and through tolls and taxes. Also, alternatives to automobile dependency such as inter-modality (combining the advantages of individual and collective transport), carpooling and non-motorized transportation have been encouraged.

The concept is simple: download an app on a smartphone and it allows you to locate and unlock a nearby bike. And it is cheap, offering rides at as little as a 1 Renminbi (about Rs 10) per hour. Some start-ups even offer free rides over weekends. When the trip is completed, riders are encouraged to park the bicycle at a location that does not interfere with pedestrians or traffic.

Speaking of cities, the worst affected zones are the city centres. An often unregulated presence of cars in these centres adds to the misery. Solution lies at the roots of the problem, so says an old adage. The spread of modern transport systems and personal mobility can be traced back to the invention of the bicycle. So what kind of solutions can bicycles offer to the problem at hand?

Innovative bike sharing in China

Rediscovery of the bicycle

Interestingly, in China investors are infusing huge capital right now into a new avatar of the bicycle. Specifically, bicycle-sharing start-ups in China are enjoying swelling growth. The concept is simple: download an app on a smartphone and it allows you to locate and unlock a nearby bike. And it is cheap, offering rides at as little as a 1 Renminbi (about Rs 10) per hour. Some start-ups even offer free rides over weekends. When the trip is completed, riders are encouraged to park the bicycle at a location that does not interfere with pedestrians or traffic.

It’s a totally different model than traditional bicycle-sharing programs and models. For instance, Delhi’s cycle-sharing model requires users to start and end rides only at cycle docks across the city. With the Chinese model, a user has the unique ability to use a bike whenever and wherever without the hassle of losing or maintaining it. Starting a ride is as easy as locating a cycle parked nearby, unlocking it using your smartphone and pedalling away to your destination. Amazingly, it offers great flexibility to the users that cannot be imitated with public transit options and personal cars.

Zubair Lone

Cities will continue to become more and more crowded and dispersed. In keeping them attractive and competitive in a future where their existence is not threatened by congestion, pollution and climate change, affordable and safe transport and mobility have a vital role to play. In such a scenario, it becomes all the more important to continually keep rediscovering and exploring- from the familiar bicycle-sharing to the futuristic technologies like Hyperloop, Metrino and pod taxis.

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