A well-parked Mobike Light
They invaded China, and now they’re invading the world, nation after nation. In Europe they have already arrived. They are yellow or orange, green or blue, and have pedals and two wheels: bike sharing, is the green answer that has arrived directly from China for getting around the city. Specifically, in Italy the first to arrive are Ofo and Mobike, but they’re not the only ones made in China.
In fact, since they do things big in China, they’ve moved on from taking advantage of carbon mines to a wild bicycle movement with unfair competition at times, to the last seat.
The idea, although it has been realized with exponential numbers that have grossly crowded up the sidewalks of their respective cities, was to bridge the gap in the lack of public transportation in an ecological way: which it does, in fact, in those cases where your destination is too far away to walk, but not so far as to call a taxi and then have to wait for it.
It is for that last mile to cross, from your door to the metro, from the office to the bus station, that Mobike, Ofo, Hellobike, Bluegogo, Yongxiang, Xiaoming, Yubike and many, many others have come.
The situation, it must be said, is a little complex and rapidly evolving: in fact the dominance of Ofo and Mobike, the respective properties of Alibaba and Tencent, has made it so that smaller private companies are slowly disappearing from circulation. So I will limit this to describing in detail the two leading companies.
So here’s the complete guide for how to stay up to date with shared bicycles in Europe, but especially, on your next trip to China.
Mobike first model with single fork
To use shared bicycles you need to have a:
- cell phone with internet connection;
- credit card or online payment tool (Wechat Pay or Alipay);
- form of identification (to activate the service).
First of all, download the App for the bike company you’re interested in using. Those who currently offer Apps in a non-Chinese language are (well, look who it is) Mobike and Ofo. At first access, you’ll be asked to register (email and cell number) and then leave a deposit (mandatory) and validate your identification.
To verify the document you’ll need to take a selfie with the document in hand or take a picture of the information page of the passport, following the instructions. At times the confirmation takes a couple of days: so if you’re thinking about using a rented bike on your next trip to China, don’t wait until the last minute to activate the App.
The deposit amount varies according to the company and is usually between 100 Yuan and 300 Yuan. The deposit is not your account, your wallet, where your amount will be withdrawn after each use; that gets recharged separately even with 20 Yuan, to be able to use the bikes. The deposit is refundable at any time.
Once the App is activated, you have to look for an available one, which you can do by consulting the map included in the App, or by just looking around, since they are e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e. The bike will unlock by scanning the QR code on the bike or by manually inserting the access code. Even when you leave it when you’re done using it, you have to remember to lock it; the App will automatically register the end of the use and debit the appropriate amount.
If you remember later on that you left your Mobike or Ofo unlocked, you can lock it remotely through the App, but only if the model you used isn’t one of the manual ones.
If you want to be sure that no one “steals” the bike you want, you can use the advanced booking option (click the bike you want on the map)! But it’s for a limited time, so you can’t get attached to just one.
An example of bikes left without care on the side of the road
All behavior against the rules of good sense, from reckless parking to damage to forgetting your lock and things like that, are punished with a fine. So much so that frequent use is rewarded with “reward trips”; for example, the use of at least three bikes a day allowing you to pedal for free from the third one onward.
Moreover, there are various offers to make sure that the bikes are equally used or taken from places where they’ve been stashed or left to rot. If you have time and patience, by consulting the map, you can find and use only these forgotten bikes, which are many, and always ride for free.
And still, an attentive user that is actively indicating breakdowns and inadequate behavior will be rewarded with a travel coupon. Basically, the system is designed for responsible use.
This is because, as soon as bike-sharing appeared in China and spread from city to city, instances of neglect reached incredible levels. Since the bikes aren’t “anyone’s”, the one responsible at the time was “nobody” because the system didn’t provide for a self-monitoring system for infractions.
Therefore those who used them negligently would park without respect for the road or the rules of the road, nor the inhabitants or future cyclists. Piles of bikes blocked metro exits or even the entrances to homes!
Moreover, by means of a couple of malicious strategies one could disadvantage the competition: scraping away the QR code of a Mobike would make the bike automatically unusable; the same thing with locking an Ofo with a personal padlock; or by physically damaging it.
This is why it is said that in the beginning, the agencies had a real war to the last incorrect act to conquer the market, well aware that a part of their means would be out of order for a brief time. The result, cheap options and laxity on the part of users. For their part, bike renters usually had a dozen bike sharing App’s ready to use so as to avoid getting stuck.
The Ofo unlocking system
When the law officially stepped in, things got much better and it was then that the small agencies began succumbing to the two large companies: Ofo and Mobike have in fact greatly improved the quality and number of bikes on the roads, making the use of other models superfluous for citizens.
Now, it’s not as if the metro exits are completely clear or you’ll never find bikes stacked in the dark corners of the roads. However, it’s much less, there are user control systems (rewards and demerits);a small army of collaborators patrolling the streets and restoring the masses of abandoned scrap iron, broken bikes or a lack of means; the authorities actively work to keep the situation under control.
Una Ofo (parked on the sidewalk)
Haluo danche 哈啰单车 Hello Bike
Considering what happened to the now almost defunct yellow bicycles of Ofo, in China, you’ll see – as a result – that they’re using more and more the blue and white equivalent called Haluo danche 哈啰单车 (Hellobike). Founded in 2016, its initial strategy was to make their bikes available in smaller cities and villages, beating the competition of its “adversaries” that have always targeted the bigger cities.
I personally use them on a daily basis and in the majority of cases I’ve always been satisfied by the service, which is easy and convenient. They’re not only found in big cities like Beijing, Shanghai or Nanjing, but also in smaller ones, or so to speak, those less developed.
The app is available for both Android and iOS systems.
As soon as you download the app, you can immediately start using the bikes without having to stand behind those “hated” bureaucratic practices of identification by means of your ID.
Rather, I can tell you that in the updated version of Alipay, the Appis found by default among the various available services with the name of Haluo chuxing 哈啰出行. Just click on the icon and you can hop on the seats of one of these fantastic bikes.
In this case, too you’ll have to unlock the lock by scanning it – open the App and click on saoma kaisuo 扫码开锁 (scan the code to unlock the lock) – at the QR code located on the back wheel, or for the newer bikes you’ll need to have an active Bluetooth connection, which will automatically unlock your two-wheeled transportation.
As far as a deposit goes, if you have a minimum of 650 xinyongfen 信用分 (credits) on Alipay you can have access to the mianya 免押 option, and won’t have to pay any deposit. If you don’t have it, you’ll be forced to send a deposit of 199 Yuan (about 25 USD) which can be returned by clicking on guanli qianbao 管理钱包 (manage wallet) at the bottom middle and then on tui yajin 退押金 (return deposit).
The App offers you the chance to buy cards for a limited period of time – usually 30 or 90 days – and you can use the bikes as many times as you want. Yes, you heard right. For an U-N-L-I-M-I-T-E-D number of times. For now, a 30-day card cost 20 Yuan (a little more than 2 USD), while a 90 day one costs 60. I say ‘for now’ because promotions vary from time to time and as such is limited. Up until a short time ago, for example, the monthly subscription was free.
Another option is to pay each time on the basis of your trip instead of one of the above-mentioned packages.
The price for each half-hour is 1 Yuan (exactly 12 cents, can you believe it? Really cheap!).
Please note: if you use the bike for less than a half-hour, the system will count it as if it were a half-hour, so you’ll still have to pay 1 Yuan. If instead you’re the sporting type and prefer to ride a bike instead of public transportation so as to work off the greasy food you ate the night before, Hellobike rewards you – if you reach a certain number of uses or have a good record of conduct – they’ll give you the possibility of using the bike for the first two hours free, after which the normal rates would apply.
Hellobike is perhaps one of the few – if not the only bike-sharing company – that offers cutting edge e-bike service. I had the chance and pleasure to use it during my weekend trip to Ningbo. Sadly though, there aren’t many e-bikes, probably as a testament to the fact that this is a service that’s still in the experimental phase.
The zhuliche 助力车(e-bike or assisted bicycle) is used in the same way: you scan the QR code and hop on the seat. Some – I’ve only found one – provide a protective helmet to wear during your trip. Once finished, I recommend that you park your e-bike in the designated space marked in the App with the letter P, otherwise you can incur a fine.
Well yeah, I remember one day that I risked incurring a fine (about 20 Yuan) for having parked my bike badly and was admonished with a message that warned me that if I parked my bike outside of the right place 3 times, I would have to pay a fine. Fortunately, the next time I was more careful (I hadn’t even been aware of my infraction) and civil and was able to avoid it.
The rate for each half-hour is slightly more expensive than a normal bicycle and costs 2 Yuan. These zhuliche don’t have a lock because after parking it you have to click on huanche 还车 (litt. Return the bicycle) in the App and in a few seconds the bike locks automatically.
According to recent statements, Hellobike seems to want to launch into the market an e-scooter that would reduce consumption and pollution. This e-scooter will travel at a speed of 25 km/h, can be recharged at designated stations/posts and can be rented for 200 Yuan a month (about 25 USD).
Hellobike’s intent is to change the trend where people usually buy two or four-wheeled vehicles and instead encourage them to rent at reasonable prices.
Xiaolan danche 小蓝单车 (Bluegogo)
Bluegogo is another bike-sharing company – according to 2017 estimates it was the third-largest in China – founded in 2016 in Tianjin by the Tianjin Luding Technology Co., Ltd. The first city where this new service was launched was Shenzhen, eventually expanding into Canton, Chengdu, and Beijing at the beginning of 2017.
Sadly though, Bluegogo had a brief life and in November 2017 it declared bankruptcy with a total loss of 600 million Yuan (about 77 million USD). All this generated a phenomenon of rudeness with piles of bicycles left in front of metro stations, on sidewalks or alongside the road.
Coming to Bluegogo’s aid was another Chinese transport giant, DiDi 滴滴, who in January 2018 bought a large part of its shares, thereby relaunching the company that, even at a great economic loss, is trying to re-establish itself and provide their Chinese clients an adequate bike-sharing service.
On an esthetic level, Bluegogo is easily recognizable for its blue color from which the company gets its name.
On a technical note, it should be said that:
- the GPS navigations system have improved;
- the speed of unlocking the lock has been increased – 5 seconds on average;
- the seats are of high quality, are adjustable in height and are made by Selle Royal, a famous company that produces bicycle seats;
- the basket at the back of the bicycle can carry a weight of 25 kg.
Since March 21, 2019, the hourly rates have changed to reflect a slight increase. From a rate of 1 Yuan each half-hour, it went to 1 Yuan for the first 15 minutes with an increase of 0.5 Yuan for the second 15 minutes onward. In other words, the hourly rate is 2.5 Yuan (about 25 cents). Among clients this created a certain malcontent, making Bluegogo the most expensive Chinese bike-sharing company.
Since December 2019 there was an additional rise in rates that brings it to about 1.5 Yuan every half hour. We’ll see if during 2020 the prices go up again, or if there will be other news, both positive or negative.
Qingju danche 青桔单车 (Qingju Bike)
Perhaps you don’t know yet, but Qingju Bike is another bike-sharing company, again the property of Didi Chuxing 滴滴出行, which started operating on January 25, 2018 in Chengdu, then established themselves in Kunming, Tianjin, and Wuxi.
If you’re asking if these types of bikes are the ones found in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, in this paragraph I’ll show you in greater detail the full situation.
When it comes to the city of Beijing, DiDi tried to put more than 3000 models in circulation in the districts of Haidian 海淀 and Zhongguancun 中关村, without success. Well yeah, on May 16, 2019, the Beijing Department of Transportation came out against Didi’s economic movement, accusing them of not having obtained permission from the municipal government, having violated the rules for the circulation of non-motorized vehicles, and for having caused an uproar in the entire system of bike rental. DiDi, therefore, was forced to collect all the Qingju bicycles that have gone “missing”.
With Shanghai, the Qingju bikes were banned because the Department of Municipal transportation expressly asked the various bike-sharing companies to not put more bikes in circulation to remedy the damage caused by years of laxness and non-orthodox manners shown by users. In any case, DiDi has given the go-ahead to the distribution of 600 two-wheeled forms of transport in the Jiading 嘉定 district, risking being put on the so-called blacklist and no longer work in Shanghai, which would seem to have happened since I’ve only seen very few around.
To use this service, you have to take the following steps:
- Download the App Didi Chuxing;
- Register with your phone number or WeChat account;
- Type in Qingju danche 青桔单车;
- Click on mianfei qixing 免费骑行 (ride a bike for free) and take the free monthly card, the so-called yueka 月卡.
Even when you go to scan the QR code, you’ll notice the following characters on the seat: mian yajin qixing 免押金骑行, or “ride the bike without paying the security deposit”. I think that the company’s economic strategy is excellent because it attracts a growing number of users to try their bicycles without having to leave a deposit.
In addition, with the yueka you can ride bikes for free for the first five hours; if instead, you don’t have it (promotions change from time to time and there may even be differences depending on the user), the rate is 1 Yuan for the first hour, and for each additional 30 minutes you have to pay 0.5 Yuan.
They’re marked by the colors of white with aqua green, which in my opinion, should go back to the great color lines of Mandarin green, which is immature considering that in Chinese 青桔 which means just this: qingse juzi 青涩桔子 (unripe green Mandarin).
Their service is no longer available in China
Their service is no longer available in China
A model of a shared electric bicycle, for the laziest
Whether you’re a fan of Ofo or Mobike, the service is competitive with the super cheap forms of Chinese transport! Not even a ride on the bus is as inexpensive. If you add in the discounts on offer, you might even be able to take the bike for free.
For getting around the traffic-filled cities of China, which are for the most part flat, at times bike sharing is the quickest and least stressful option. Clearly, rainy days are a little different…
Frequently asked questions about bike sharing in China
If instead you’re only in China for brief periods (stopover, tourism, etc.) and don’t have the option of opening an account in any Chinese bank, according to the latest rumors of November 2019, you can also use this service using an international credit card.
Alipay, for example, offers the option of making available a prepaid electronic card provided by the Bank of Shanghai, which can be recharged by using your own international credit or debit card. The minimum that you can recharge is 100 RMB (or a little more than 13 USD) and the maximum is 2000 RMB (a little more than 260 USD). For more information check the WeChat and Alipay guide!
At times you’ll also be asked to upload one or more photos of the damage so as to provide further verification and allow for quick maintenance on the part of the technicians. Consequently, after taking the picture, you have to click on the tijiao 提交 button (send) located at the bottom.
Some companies like Qingju Bike, looking to attract more customers to use their service, will give you the choice – after “buying” (actually they just give it to you) the monthly card – to use a bike for free for the first 5 hours.
Generally the rates are calculated by the use of the bike for 15, 30 or 60 minutes depending on the company. If the ride is less than 15 or 30 minutes, the minimum standard rate is equally applied and you’ll have to pay the prearranged rate. For that reason, I suggest that you use the bike as close as possible to the time the rate finishes before it goes up to the next time period.
What do you think? Have you already tried?
Photo Credits: Photos by Rita Andreetti