China Is Burying Its Cities Under Mountains of Extremely Cheap Bikes

A supercharged venture capital scene is reshaping the commute.

Bike sharing at the subway station near Nanluoguxiang, a street in the old part of Beijing that’s highly popular for small shops and street snacks.

Photographer: Matjaz Tancic for Bloomberg Businessweek

My commute to work in Beijing used to be a 50-minute ordeal of urban combat. I’d board a rush-hour subway car—and by “board,” I mean forcefully wedge myself into a mass of humanity so tightly packed that I couldn’t bend an arm to glance at my phone. A few months ago, a new, semi-ironic indignity began to add even more time to the slog: the need, outside each station, to navigate past sprawling regiments of rentable bicycles, numbering in the dozens or even hundreds, clogging walkways and tripping up pedestrians. The bikes are the seemingly ever-expanding inventory of two Beijing startups, Mobike and Ofo, and several copycats. The services have become almost identical—scan a QR code to unlock a bike, then drop it off anywhere, no docking station needed—so the only thing they can compete on is convenience.

Featured in Bloomberg Businessweek, Aug. 14, 2017. Subscribe now
Photographer: Sasha Arutyunova for Bloomberg Businessweek

Cycling in Beijing isn’t exactly peaceful. Many large streets have ostensible bike lanes, but they’re often blocked by parked cars, inexplicable curbs, and a menagerie of moving objects: delivery guys on motorcycles; tourists meandering in rickshaws; construction crews hauling gray bricks in rusted carts; and small capsule vehicles that look like motorized onions. Sometimes a bike lane ends without warning, forcing bikers to choose between the sidewalk and the highway. The latter is preferable, unless the oncoming car is a BMW or a Lexus; luxury car owners are typically accustomed to getting ahead by breaking rules, possibly including those about mowing down cyclists.

But it’s all worth it. Recently I gave up on the suffocating subway and tried the bikes. My commute has been halved to 25 minutes. In a hard city, the sudden ubiquity of cycle sharing has created a welcome bit of grace, and it’s all courtesy of China’s brand of startup culture.

Bikes for rent in the Sanlitun area of Beijing.
Photographer: Matjaz Tancic for Bloomberg Businessweek
Photographer: Matjaz Tancic for Bloomberg Businessweek
Photographer: Matjaz Tancic for Bloomberg Businessweek
Photographer: Matjaz Tancic for Bloomberg Businessweek