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December 15, 2017

The Bicycles of Lanzhou

Lanzhou is a Chinese city , which you’ve probably never heard of , with a population of 3.6 million. It has a history: it’s here that the Silk Road crosses the Yellow River (on chained barges way back when). The Japanese never captured Lanzhou during WW2. It’s a major industrial city and a center of the Chinese nuclear industry as well as home to Institute of Modern Physics, Chinese Academy of Science. Lanzhou was once one of the most polluted cities in the world but in 2015 it won China’s climate progress title.

The climate progress wasn’t because of the bikes; they’ve only become significant again in the last year. At the end of the 20th century, traffic in Chinese cities was mostly bikes. Thy turned into scooters and motorcycle then into Audis and Mercedes as prosperity spread. At least twice a day the new cars froze into fuming gridlock.

Like many cities with a pollution and congestion problem, Lanzhou deployed municipal bike rental racks. They didn’t get much use, often looked like the picture below. IMG_20171208_214213766

People had the usual complaints. The racks weren’t conveniently located at either end of a trip. At your destination you might find a full rack and not be able to return the bike without going somewhere else. With so few bikes on the road, drivers didn’t expect them; and, even though some bicycle lanes had been designated, riding was extremely dangerous.

But private enterprises, which flourishes in the nominally communist country, had an answer. A new breed of rental bike quickly sprawled over the sidewalks. The innovation is that these are rackless bikes. There are no fixed bike racks. Each bike has a GPS, a cellular data connection of some kind (cell coverage is excellent in Lanzhou), and a locking clamp  on the rear wheel. IMG_20171208_213407611_LL

Since bikes are sprawled almost everywhere in the city, there is usually one very near the beginning of your trip. If you don’t immediately see one, the bike app on your phone will tell you where the nearest ones are. Remember, bikes transmit their location. You use the app to unlock the nearest bike and you’re off. When you finish a trip, you leave the bike outside the door of your destination and engage its rear wheel lock. Engaging the lock ends your rental.

Bikes are faster than cars during rush hours. Last year when I was in Lanzhou there were almost no bikes on the streets. This year there are so many bikes that they have become a new hazard to pedestrians but car traffic does seems to have thinned out. A bike is a normal way to get to a business appointment. People complain about the unsightly sprawl of bicycles everywhere; but the bikes are being used. American riders, however, would be shocked to see absolutely no bicycle helmets.

I understand that the same two companies whose bikes are now ubiquitous in Lanzhou are in other Chinese cities as well. My friend Fred Wilson, who is a Citibike fan in NYC, noticed that Shanghai has solved the rack problem which devils him at home. China has successfully gone back to the future and made progress against both congestion and pollution.

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