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FEATURE STORY August 2, 2017

In Chinese Cities, Mobile-Based Car and Bike Sharing Programs Bring Both Benefits and Challenges

Mobile technology has led to a surge of internet-based transport modes and services — so-called “internet plus transport”. These new mobile services have changed travel behaviors across Chinese cities and provided more choices and better services for travelers. But they are also posing new challenges to urban transport managers.

To understand these new trends and challenges, the World Bank and China Transport News, a national newspaper focused on transport developments and trends, organized a workshop in Beijing on July 11, 2017, with about 100 participants from central and local governments, research institutes, companies and NGOs.

The definition of mobility today is no longer just about traditional transport, it now entails application of the latest technologies, including big data, digitalized infrastructure, and cloud computing, to solve problems not only in the transport sector, but also in urban planning, environmental protection and sustainable development,” said Randeep Sudan, an Information Communication Technology advisor at the World Bank.

In China, the bike-sharing business has grown rapidly: OFO, the world’s first “non-docking” bike-sharing company, relies on mobile-application to deploy its 6.5 million bikes across 150 cities in China. Collecting data from users with the help of the Chinese Academy of Transportation Science (CATS), they have concluded in a new report that 89% of users are between 18 and 49 years old, and 85% of bike trips are within two kilometers. This implies that most OFO bike trips serve as feeders for users to connect to the “last mile” of mass transportation.

Bike sharing has many benefits, two of which are saving energy and reducing the carbon footprint. From April to June 2017 in China’s 20 largest cities, about 84 million liters of gasoline were saved and the CO2 emission was reduced by 265,000 tons. China’s gasoline consumption dropped in April 2017 for the first time in a decade, and Yang Pinjie, one of OFO’s co-founders, believes the booming bike-sharing programs in Chinese cities contribute to the fact.

But as more commuters use bike-sharing programs, new problems emerge: Wu Hongyang from CATS pointed out that a lack of sufficient parking has caused bikes to stack and block sidewalks; vandalism has increased bike-sharing companies’ operating costs; cyclists compete for space with cars in very busy streets; and the requirements and regulations on bike maintenance are yet to be developed. The booming sector needs regulations and policies to be put in place to oversee the roughly 50 bike-sharing companies with more than 10 million non-stocking bikes that are deployed in some 150 cities in China.

When it comes to car sharing, China’s version of Uber, DiDi Chuxing, has 400 million registered users who take 20 million trips daily. In addition to DiDi-taxi and DiDi-express, DiDi has expanded its services to shared carpooling, bus, and car rentals. As a mobile-based service, DiDi’s customers generate a huge amount of data, enabling it to work with over 10 Chinese cities to improve transport management.

In Guiyang, DiDi works with the local authority to publish real-time road traffic information, including the estimated travel time based on big-data analysis. In Jinan, DiDi works with the local traffic police to use congestion and delay data to optimize signal timing and green waves of corridors, which can reduce traffic delays by 20%,” said Zhang Bei, a vice CEO of DiDi. As a result of these partnerships, DiDi is transforming itself into a comprehensive travel information provider.

Unlike OFO and DiDi, Car2go, the world’s largest and fastest-growing free float car-sharing service, is still looking for opportunities to collaborate with local governments due to the high density and lack of parking space in Chinese cities. Company research has shown that every Car2go could replace 7-11 cars, which leads to a 4% to 18% reduction of GHG emissions. Chongqing became the first Chinese city to use Car2go in 2016, with 119,000 users to date. Car2share, a station-based self-service car rental system, has been introduced in cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou, etc.

While China’s car-sharing industry grew by 84% annually with more than 30,000 cars and 800,000 users, their utilization rate was only about 13% in 2016, said Sun Shengyang, from GIZ China. Studies show that shorter trips favor the free float car-sharing system, while station-based systems are better for longer trips.

In general, Chinese cities welcome the complementary transport services provided by “internet plus transport” companies. “In Guangzhou, improving public transport service is a long-term priority. The newly developed ‘demand responsive transport’ (DRT) system dispatches buses based on orders placed online. Ticketing and scheduling are all based on internet and mobile phones. DRT now serves as an effective complement to regular bus service,” said Su Kui from the Guangzhou Transport Commission.

However, Su also expressed concerns about illegal parking due to the non-stocking nature of services. “Although these services provide convenience to people, they need to be regulated in consideration of limited public space and safety. Laws and regulations need to be developed soon.”  

Beijing, the capital city of China, is among the frontrunners in intelligent transport system (ITS). “Internet plus transport is not only a technical tool, but a way to increase productivity, efficiency and quality of life,” said Ge Yu from the Beijing Transport Commission. Internet plus transport has four stages: data collection, clouding, broadcasting, and analysis and application. “Beijing has relatively advanced systems for stage 1 and 2. The newly established Transport Big Data Center has integrated more than 8,000 data entries from nearly 40 systems. We have also developed APPs to publish transport service information and real-time traffic performance index to the public. But there is still much more to do in stage 3 and 4”.

The Beijing municipal government has recognized the value of the data, and is looking for ways to work with private sector partners to develop more applications, especially with “internet plus transport” companies to expand the database by tapping into private and other data sources.

Supported by the GEF-funded Large City Congestion and Carbon Reduction Project, the workshop was part of the World Bank’s TransFORM activities on Urban Transport. TransFORM is a knowledge platform jointly developed by the World Bank and Ministry of Transport to share China’s experience and know-how gained from 30 years of developing a large national transport network.