A Chinese bike-sharing company has gone out of business after 90% of its bikes went missing in the first five months.
Chongqing-based Wukong Bikes said the bulk of its 1,200 two-wheelers were lost or stolen.
Unlike rivals, the firm did not put GPS systems on its bikes and by the time it realised the technology was necessary, money had run out.
It is believed to be the first bankruptcy of China’s booming bike-sharing industry.
A free ride
Billed as “Uber for bikes”, China’s tech giants have been funding sophisticated bike hire businesses as a potential solution to congested roads.
Tencent-backed Mobike and Ofo, supported by Alibaba and Xiaomi, are dominating the market.
But Wukong was a much smaller player, aimed mainly at students in the city.
Founder Lei Houyi told local media that as well as the lack of GPS, his firm had struggled because its bikes were of inferior quality to those used by its larger competitors and were damaged too easily.
He added that while users were initially charged, Wukong resorted to giving away bicycles rides for free to try and compete with other players.
China bike-sharing: How it works
The concept is similar to bike-sharing schemes that were popularised in cities including London and Paris.
But in China, rather than having fixed docking stations, all the firms are app based.
In most cases, bikes are fitted with a GPS chip, allowing users to locate a bike. They pay for the hire with their smartphones and then unlock it – sometimes using a QR code.
After they have finished the journey, customers can leave the bike anywhere.
That has proved problematic at times, with bikes abandoned in remote locations where another rider is unlikely to find it or want it.
Mobike has tried to get around this problem by providing cash or credit rewards for users who hire these bikes, in the hope they will end up somewhere more accessible.
And the huge uptake of the scheme has caused conflicts on both roads and pavements as cyclists vie for space to move around, especially in Shanghai and Beijing.
Similar schemes have opened up in Hong Kong and Singapore with Ofo planning to launch in Cambridge in the UK.
When Paris joined forces with JCDecaux to launch the first modern bike-share system in 2007, it created a model for bike sharing around the world. A decade later, cities and operators are working together in hundreds of cities worldwide to fill an essential urban mobility need: short, one-way bike trips.
But starting in January, a new model hit the streets in cities across the U.S. Sometimes called “rogue bike shares,” these systems are rolled out by private operators without any discussion or coordination with local government or bike-share operators. From BlueGoGo in San Francisco, to Spin in Austin, and LimeBike in smaller cities across the West Coast, these systems are deeply subsidized by venture capital and offer alluring prices to riders. They have been hailed as the next innovation in bike share—cheaper and better for users and cities alike. But how much does bike sharing need to be “disrupted,” and what do cities and residents actually stand to gain?
At $1 per trip, rogue bike share sounds like a great deal. But if you take more than one trip or rely on the system for a daily commute, it gets pricey fast. A person using bike share to get to work, taking two trips per weekday, would pay $2 a day, $10 a week, or $40 a month. Compare that to established systems, where the more often you ride, the cheaper each trip gets. A Relay rider in Atlanta or a Citi Bike rider in New York pays only $15 per month. Riding to and from work, five days a week, means that each trip cost 35 cents. For low-income people, bike share can be even cheaper, as an increasing number of cities offer subsidized passes. A low-income Philadelphian with an AccessPass membership to Indego pays $5 per month, or just 11 cents per trip.
Even with higher prices, it’s not clear that the rogue business model can actually survive. Because the systems are so new, it’s tough to know exact revenues and costs, but the fundamental premises of their business model raise red flags about their overall financial viability.
Rogue systems rely on high trip volumes to break even. NACTO’s estimate1suggests that a 2,000-bike system with bare-bones staffing would need to rack up more than 4 rides per bike per day in order to break even. This is well above the current U.S. bike-share average. New York’s Citi Bike, the most heavily used bike share system in the U.S., averages 3.8 rides per bike per day annually. Velib’ in Paris, arguably the most extensively used system in the Western world, averages 5.3 rides per bike per day. Systems in small and medium-sized U.S. cities average from 0.5 to 2 rides.
To break even at these rates, rogue companies can either raise prices or reduce operating costs. That means cuts to bike maintenance, rebalancing, and outreach. The problem is that bike-share users, like transit users, care about reliability and convenience. Annual surveys from Washington, D.C. repeatedly show that the ability to “get around more easily” is the most common reason for using bike share. People won’t ride if bikes are hard to find or damaged. And the bikes will break: In one conversation with a rogue bike-share company, a city official was told that the company offered two bike models, the “good” 2-year life-expectancy option and another model expected to last less than a year. Can a business model be sustainable with a full system replacement every two years?
In established bike-share systems, private or nonprofit operators are tasked with providing equitable service, and partnerships with cities serve as levers to make it happen. To be successful and equitable, people must be able to easily find safe, high-quality bikes throughout the coverage area, in both high- and low-income neighborhoods. For even the most successful systems, this has been a challenge. For the rogue systems, the lower density and trip volumes in low-income neighborhoods would likely deter them from providing service there.
Additionally, bikes don’t stay equitably distributed without a significant investment in rebalancing and staffing. Established smart-bike and smart-dock systems spend considerable money to make sure bikes get back to the places where people want to start their trips. In contrast, free-floating bikes tend to gravitate toward central business or tourist districts. In San Francisco’s busy areas, BlueGoGo’s bikes often clogged existing bike racks, sidewalks, and Muni platforms. The reliance on an app compounds this problem: if you don’t have a smartphone, or are just out of battery, finding a bike is a matter of pure luck.
With over 102 million trips since 2010, U.S. bike share has an exceptional safety record, and some of this is due to high bike quality and design. The existing bike-share bikes are built with robust, tamper-proof parts, feature always-on front and rear lights, and are extensively stress-tested and routinely maintained. But, to date, the rogue companies have not followed suit; their bikes seem unable to withstand heavy usage. Spin’s one-week pilot in Austin during SXSW resulted in numerous broken bikes, many with extreme damage like bent seat posts and falling off gears.
Can rogue bike share pay a living wage?
In just seven years, U.S. bike share has created nearly 1,500 jobs, many paying a living wage. In D.C., Boston, New York City, and Chicago, bike share jobs are union, meaning operators pay living wages and provide full health benefits for employees. In Philadelphia, Atlanta, Jersey City, and New York City, partnerships with workforce development organizations focus on finding good jobs for low-income residents.
Given the business model of rogue companies, it’s unlikely they could do the same. NACTO’s estimate suggests that, even at an unlikely 4 rides per bike per day, wages for all rogue bike-share jobs, from CEO to mechanic, would be capped at $16 per hour. At a more plausible 2 rides per bike per day, companies would have to cut all wages to $6.50 per hour.
On razor thin margins, it seems unlikely that the companies could afford community ambassadors, workforce training, community ride staffing, or learn-to-ride instructors. But, as Citi Bike ridership results from Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, attest, building a strong bike share system requires engagement and outreach. Shortchanging these jobs can increase community tensions and hurt the bottom line.
In thinking about cycling, mobility, and equity, the promises of these companies warrant closer scrutiny, not least because of the impact they could have on well-functioning, city-approved systems. In the worst-case scenario, rogue companies could drive out their competition through artificially low prices, and then fold due to low service quality and low ridership.
Across the board, cities would do well to ask hard questions about ridership assumptions, service quality, staffing plans and wages, prices, safety, and what happens if it all goes south. As cities, investors, and bike advocates look for the next big thing to help systems expand further and faster, let’s make sure we know exactly what we’re getting.
The model assumed systems that operated 365 days per year at $1/ride. Capital costs were estimated at $200/bike, replaced every 2 years. For operating costs, we assumed 8 staff would be required for under 200 bikes, with one additional staff person for every additional 50 bikes. Staff would be paid $16/hour for 8 hour days with 28% for benefits. Overhead on operating costs was assumed to be 15%. ↩
Professor of Investment at Peking University, Author & Keynote Speaker
In the past month, there has been a lot of talk about China’s new “sharing economy”. Articles in the New York Times, Fortune, Bloomberg, and the South China Morning Post have all cited ride-sharing (Didi), bicycle rentals (ofo, Mobike), and the new micro-rental services for batteries, basketballs, and umbrellas as part of a new China “sharing economy”.
But this is not really true. The term “sharing” is misleading. And it all misses a much more interesting phenomenon: the emergence of a new type Chinese disruptor.
Here’s my take on what is really going on.
Point 1: There is no new Chinese sharing economy.
First, some terminology, as I think this is creating most of the confusion. Keep in mind, nobody really knows what the “sharing economy” is. It’s a legacy term that is pretty confusing. For example:
If I put my home on Airbnb, that would be considered “sharing” in the most traditional sense because it is a peer-to-peer transaction and uses an asset outside of the traditional hotel market.
However, if a small company lists 20 owned or contracted apartments on Airbnb is that still sharing? That isn’t peer-to-peer and it is pretty similar to a small hotel or rental business.
If 10 different people rent the same ofo bicycle for 20 minutes during a day, is that sharing or a rental? It seems like both. And if that is sharing (as many claim), then isn’t different people staying in the same hotel room over time also sharing?
What about sharing labor? If you contract a designer through a company like Elance, is that sharing? It’s peer-to-peer. Does it have to be a physical product to be sharing?
What about Spotify and other music or video streaming services? The customers are no longer buying the songs. Can you share products that are intangible like media?
And what about fractional ownership of jets or vacation apartments? That is a type of collaborative consumption. Also sharing?
You can basically play this game with any business that people describe as “sharing” because the terminology is so fuzzy. And the biggest problem is that sharing implies a physical product or asset, when so much of what is now going on in these businesses is with added services, data, labor and intangibles.
So my recommendation is to forget the term sharing economy. The key to understanding what has been going on in China with companies likes Didi, Ofo, and the others, is to ask the right question. If you get the question right, everything becomes clear.
Point 2: The question to ask is access vs. ownership.
When I get confused about a business situation, I think about the point of purchase. In this case, I think the right question is the one a consumer actually asks him or herself which is should I buy this or rent it? Should I own it or access it?
This decision between ownership and access is where both consumer behavior and business strategy diverge along two very different paths. And most of the best thinkers (Michael Porter, etc.) refer to these new companies not as part of the “sharing economy” but as innovators in the “access economy”.
Think about how different access and ownership businesses are. If you want to own a bicycle, there are lots of factors you consider: price; style and look, brand and reputation, premium vs. economy product; new vs. used. You also think about the bikes that are actually available at your local retailer, the distance to the store from your home, storage requirements when not using, frequency of usage; and so on. There is a lot going on in the consumer decision when it comes to owning something. And successful bicycle manufacturers, like Taiwanese Giant Bicycles, are structured specifically to compete on these factors – such as in design capabilities, manufacturing cost and scale, brand and marketing support, access to retail space, etc.
Now consider if you just want to access (i.e., rent) a bicycle for a while. You ask very different questions. What is the price per hour? Can I rent by the hour or do I need to take the whole day? Is there a bike rental store near where I want to go? Where do I drop it off when I’m done? Do I need a lock and helmet? And so on. Access businesses are mostly about two factors: price and convenience. Note: they also often compete on greater selection (think Spotify, a type of access business based on large selection). But price and convenience are the important factors for this discussion.
So in all these new China businesses, I think the question is access vs. ownership. And the big factors for access are price and convenience.
Point 3: China is now seeing a wave of “digital disruptors” in access and convenience.
What has really changed in the past 1-2 years in China is the arrival of smartphones, mobile payments, GPS and a very dynamic mobile app ecosystem. Other technologies like smart locks and kiosks have also arrived but these are less important.
For thinking about how these types of new digital tools and processes impact businesses, I refer you to the work of Jay Scanlan at McKinsey & Co. He has some great frameworks for this (an outstanding paper located here). But his main point is that digital disruption can impact demand, supply or both. And it can be mild or extreme
Rather than go through a bunch of theory, I’m now just going to jump to my conclusion and say that most of what we have been seeing is China with companies like Didi, Ofo, and the micro-rentals is new digital tools being used to disrupt Chinese access businesses – and mostly via increased convenience on the demand side. With the exception of Didi, most of these classic disruptors.
Ok. That was a bit of theory. In Part 2, I go through the new Chinese companies specifically. But it did require some basic frameworks first. Just remember:
Forget the term “sharing economy”.
Instead, think “access economy” vs. “ownership economy”.
New digital tools and processes (like smartphones) can disrupt demand, supply or both.
Most of what has been happening in China is classic disruption in access and convenience.