Chinese Bike Sharing Companies Debut in DC

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by Rebecca Chen
A fleet of Ofo bikes in Dalian Donggang, China. Image: Sohu, Wikimedia

China’s largest dockless bike sharing companies, Ofo and Mobike, have kicked off in DC. Major competitors at home, the two are now competing in the global market, operating alongside the US-based bikeshare companies Spin, Jump, and LimeBike, as part of a 6 month pilot program to test the dockless system. Unlike Capital Bikeshare, companies like Ofo and Mobike allow users to park their bikes wherever they like, rather than only at a designated docking station, with bikes that lock automatically when not in use. The smartphone app will locate the nearest available bicycle, which can be reserved for 15 minutes and unlocked by scanning a QR code, and bike time is inexpensive. Launched in Beijing in 2014, the dockless concept has changed the biking culture in China, and DC is one of the first US cities to give it a try.

Dockless bike sharing is not without problems. Haphazardly parked bikes can be a nuisance, and vandalism can make them costly for companies. To address these issues, Ofo and Mobike hire employees to move improperly parked bikes and have implemented a points system that penalizes and rewards users’ behavior. There have also been localization issues in which the Mobike app erroneously showed users in DC bike locations in Beijing.  

Among US cities, DC has the second highest number of bike commuters, and city officials hope the new companies can fill in gaps in the Capital Bikeshare system, which is not available in many neighborhoods. During rush hour, downtown stations often fill too quickly while neighborhood stations are left empty, inconveniencing many users. The dockless system would be able to reach underserved neighborhoods and hopefully alleviate rush hour traffic, and the added convenience of parking close to work is highly appealing to those whose destination is far from a designated station. This is an excellent example of a Chinese idea making a positive impact on American lives.

Rebecca Chen is a research intern at the East-West Center and a graduate student at Georgetown University.