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Asian Bike-Sharing Companies Move Into New Markets With Mixed Results


In China, bike sharing exploded last year. The system is different from many American bike shares. The bicycles don't require docking stations. Riders can pick them up and drop them off anywhere. Now Asian bike-sharing companies are pushing this innovation into new markets, including the United Kingdom, with mixed results. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from London.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: It's hard to overstate just how fast Mobike, the Chinese bike-sharing firm, has grown. Xue Huang, the company's head of communications, spells it out.

XUE HUANG: From the first city we launched in Shanghai in April 2016 to today, the number of cities we operate in has now gone beyond 160, and the target is 200 by the end of this year.

LANGFITT: Today the company provides an estimated 25 million rides a day, the vast majority in China.

This month, Mobike is launching in the London Borough of Ealing, which is where I'm trying out one of the company's cycles, which has a thick silver frame and bright orange wheels.


LANGFITT: What's striking is how quiet the bike is. I'm just recording it. And I guess because it doesn't have any gears and it doesn't have a chain.

Which means there's minimal upkeep. The bike costs just a buck thirty for an hour and doesn't require a docking station. Instead, a Mobike has a GPS locator that allows users with a smartphone to find one almost anywhere. Steve Pyer, Mobike's U.K. general manager, uses his smartphone to explain.

STEVE PYER: You open the app. It opens a map of where you are and will show you what bikes are in the area. You can either reserve the bike when you get close by, or you press the unlock button, which opens the camera. And then you scan the QR code that's on the bike.



PYER: And you get that lovely familiar beeping noise, and the lock automatically opens.

LANGFITT: Mobike has high hopes for Ealing, but one of the company's rivals, the Singaporean-owned oBike, has already run into trouble here in the British capital.

WESLEY HARCOURT: Had you come here about a month ago, there were about 50 or 60 from that lamppost up to here. Just suddenly appeared overnight.

LANGFITT: Wesley Harcourt's a local councilor in the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. He said when Obike launched here, it never coordinated with local officials. People parked bikes randomly, quickly clogging the path to the town hall.

HARCOURT: One of the people who's on our residents' disability commission has come into the town hall foyer saying he and his guide dog have just tripped over these bikes because they've parked them at the narrowest point in King Street. Now, it's that sort of thing that we've just got to avoid.

LANGFITT: Since July, the London Borough of Wandsworth has confiscated at least 130 yellow-colored oBikes. Officials called the operation the yellow bike plague. In a statement, oBike said it's committed to working with city officials to make sure its bikes don't get in people's way, which has been a problem back in China, where clusters of bikes have clogged subway entrances and storefronts. The situation in the English city of Manchester seems a lot better. Mobike launched there in June, winning over fans like Peter Sykes, who spoke over Skype.

PETER SYKES: There were the obvious articles in the newspaper in the first few weeks about a few of the bikes being vandalized. I have reported a couple over the last week that I've seen that have had the locks broken off. But I think generally, very well received.

LANGFITT: Mobike's U.K. general manager says the firm is in talks with more countries and hopes to continue to take China's dockless bike-sharing revolution global. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.