Over the past couple years, China’s obsession with bike-sharing seemed to be cooling down. But with the Covid-19 epidemic now restricting people’s options for urban travel, bike-share companies have seen an uptick in user activity as people gradually return to work.
Commuters are returning to bike-sharing because it allows them to ride in open space without any human contact, according to user interviews with Chinese media. An expert at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention even recommended it as the form of public transportation that poses the lowest risk of getting infected with the virus, according to Xinhua.
The renewed interest in taking shared bikes around town is now helping the companies providing them in a harsh climate. This seems especially evident in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak.
Hellobike, one of China’s biggest bike-share providers, said trips longer than 3 kilometers (1.86 miles) tripled between January 22 and January 24, when Wuhan first shut down public transportation. And the proportion of trips around hospitals, supermarkets and wet markets in Wuhan increased 5% compared with before the outbreak.
And it’s not just happening in Wuhan. Bike-share companies are seeing longer trips all around China.
Hellobike said trips longer than 3 kilometers doubled nationwide compared with the same period last year. Meituan, the food delivery company that owns the bike-share brand Mobike, also said the number trips longer than 3 kilometers were twice what they were a month earlier, when most people were still confined at home.
(Abacus is a unit of the South China Morning Post, whose owner Alibaba is an investor in Hellobike.)
Didi, which owns Qingju Bike, told us the number of trips have grown more than 150% nationwide since the beginning of February.
With many places in China still imposing strict travel controls, the numbers from bike-share companies suggest people prefer bikes for certain types of activities.
Meituan said the percentage of bike rentals placed between 9am to 12pm and in the afternoons saw “different levels of growth” from February 24 to February 28 compared with workweeks in January. But the percentage of morning rush-hour trips between 7am and 9am saw a decline.
Hellobike users seemed more interested in using bikes for grocery shopping. The company said the proportion of people using its bikes near supermarkets and wet markets increased 5% between January 8 and February 5 in major Chinese cities.
But the industry is still bruised overall, having suffered a major blow during the epidemic with most people confining themselves at home. The reprieve might not last, either. Some think the recent boost doesn’t mean that users will stick with bike-sharing once things go back to normal.
“We're likely to continue to see a short term bump in use of bike-sharing,” says Ben Cavender, analyst with China Market Research Group. “But longer term, it will still be difficult for the industry to bounce back and grow.”
Cavender said that when the public health situation stabilizes and returns to normal, consumers will shift back to normal transportation habits.
China’s bike-share sector saw rapid expansion in 2017 and 2018, when startups crammed Chinese cities with colorful bikes, eventually leading to a wave of bankruptcies and “bike graveyards.”
Sun Naiyue, an analyst with Chinese research firm Analysys, said that while the outbreak is a good chance for bike-sharing companies to prove their worth, the growth might not last because people still demand comfortability, time and convenience in commuting. And the short trips covered by shared bikes could eventually be replaced again by buses and subways.
Sun added that the outbreak could also bring more user attention to shared electric bikes, which had previously gone largely unnoticed. But Sun doesn’t think there will be explosive growth for electric bike-sharing either because it lacks government support.
Yet even with bike-sharing enjoying more popularity these days, the remnants of the bike-share boom are still evident: There’s never a shortage of bikes.
Videos circulating on Weibo show leftover bikes being put to use in a novel way in some Chinese neighborhoods. Bikes are being stacked up to block neighborhood entrances, keeping nonresidents from going in.