Share bicycles and cultures

Why do share bicycles work in China but not in Australia?

I have witnessed them first in China and then in Australia, but I have been struck by how differently they are perceived and (ab)used. Let me tell the story of share bicycles first, before returning to what is really a cultural question.

A couple of years ago I returned to Beijing to find the city festooned with millions of share bicycles. The idea: by using one of the universal payment platforms on your mobile phone (this too was another relatively recent phenomenon), you could unlock a bicycle wherever you found it, pay a small fee, ride a shorter or longer distance, and then leave it locked again for the next rider. Favoured locations were metro stations, shops, schools and so on, but they really covered wherever people needed to go. It did not matter which company produced the bikes or which of the two major payment platforms you used – Alipay or Wechatpay – for the process was incredibly simple.

Initially, a range of start-ups offered bicycles, but soon enough it boiled down to two or three: the ubiquitous yellow bicycles by ‘Ofo’ and the orange and silver ones by ‘Mobike’. While Ofo went for cheaply produced bicycles on a massive scale, Mobike took more time, designing a robust bicycle that is nearly indestructible and of course more expensive to make. Given that Mobikes are more reliable, they have become the bicycle of choice wherever possible.

The idea itself is not so old: a thought bubble by Hu Weiwei – now president of Mobike – in 2014 led to plans for developing the scheme. Apart from the usual questions for a new company, the project assumed a technological and logistical level not found elsewhere in the world at the time. Technologically, the simple yet universal payment scheme, using QR codes, had to be developed and fine-tuned first (Tencent and Alibaba had already done so). Logistically, the ability to produce and distribute millions of bicycles in the largest country in the world required a whole new level of logistics, if not future-grade infrastructure.

However, technology and logistics is only part of the story, and a relatively minor one at that. The real reason they work in China is cultural.

A few examples.

1. If a share bicycle is damaged in some way – a broken seat, a buckled wheel, a malfunctioning brake – you simply take a photograph with your smartphone and send it to the Wechat account of the company in question. Soon enough, the bicycle will be picked up and repaired (since its location can be identified by GPS).

2. If you find a row of bicycles parked in a designated area at the end of your ride, you park the bicycle in the same area. In this way, they remain organised and avoid the clutter that comes from simply dumping them. And if someone is there to ensure the bicycles are indeed so organised, you listen to what they say.

3. Since you would like to find a bicycle in working order when you need it, you leave the bicycle you have used in such a state for the next person. It certainly does not mean that you throw it into a river, damage it, or try to toss it onto a roof. Someone else’s benefit is also your benefit.

Now to Australia. More recently, a couple of share bicycle companies have attempted to establish a foothold there. I assume this is the case in other countries, but I have not as yet been in other places to witness the process.

The story could not be more different. Again, a few examples.

1. A share bicycle is left in someone’s ‘private’ front yard. For days and then weeks, the bicycle remains there, until the person in question calls the local government to have it removed.

2. A number of share bicycles are retrieved by maintenance people form the Yarra River in Melbourne. People had thought it would be ‘fun’ to toss such bicycles – which cost much more than the rental fee – into the river.

3. Piles of damaged and mutilated bicycles began appearing around the major cities. People seem to think it is perfectly fine to destroy the bicycles in question after using them and then create an ‘artwork’ of bicycles in a similar state.

4. Local governments (councils) begin measures to control the ‘messy appearance’ of share bicycles scattered through their jurisdictions. The councils tell the companies that they need to ‘manage’ the bicycles, whether tossed in rivers, thrown over traffic signs, or mutilated and piled high. It is, of course, the fault of the companies and not of the wilful individuals who use them.

What is going on here?

It seems to me that a place like Australia lacks an overall sense of the common good. Compare it to graffiti or vandalism of ‘public property’, whether trains, buses or public buildings. To be sure, the share bikes are not quite the same, since companies offer them. But there is a strong dimension of the ‘public’ or the ‘common’ about them. So they become targets for vandalism and destruction. Above all, there is little – if any – sense that someone else might benefit from your care for the bicycle: ‘I will do with it what I please and to hell with the rest of you. I might even take a picture and put it on Instagram’.

The contrast with a place like China could not be sharper. Despite all the things you might read about a selfish generation or two, the over-riding sense remains one of the need to think and act in light of what is good for all, rather than what is good for me. This reality has as much to do with the ‘benevolent humanism’ of Chinese tradition, in which the world is basically a good place in which to be, and the socialist tradition, in which the collective is primary – so much so that the individual is defined through the collective.

A final note: lest I risk idealising the Chinese approach to the share economy (which also works in other places), let me point out that share bicycles have had their teething problems. The initial clutter of bicycles around hubs was a problem – think of a sudden influx of millions upon millions of them in major cities. And the quality of some the first ones produced left much to be desired. But these problems were not seen as insurmountable, not a reason to dispense with the whole approach in light of some myth of individualism. Instead, they required practical solutions to make the system work better.