On June 15, at an exhibition hall in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, Hu Weiwei, founder of Chinese bike-sharing startup Mobike Technology Co Ltd, was busy explaining the company’s philosophy to government officials from different countries.
The former journalist articulated her views on how bike-sharing services can help ease urban traffic congestion and build smart transportation projects in Western cities.
They heard her in rapt attention. They had heard of Mobile and its phenomenal success in China. Just a day earlier, Mobike announced it would place 1,000 bicycles on the streets of Manchester, England, by June-end, marking its first major expansion outside of Asia.
Mobike’s UK move came after its arch rival Ofo Inc launched a pilot project in Cambridge in the United Kingdom two months ago.
Funded by deep-pocketed investors, Chinese bike-sharing companies such as Mobike and Ofo have notched up explosive growth over the past year.
Their services, which allow bicycles to be rented using a smartphone and parked anywhere after use, have redefined short-distance travel in China, and spawned fierce competition for market share.
The market is now expanding, encompassing the globe. Chinese players are scrambling to woo denizens of global cities where crowded streets and the desire for zero-emission transport are expected to make bike-sharing popular.
“Bike-sharing is a Chinese innovation, different from previous technology fads learned from the West. We’ve the scale and experience to help foreign consumers benefit from our innovation,” said Hu in a telephone interview with China Daily after the Amsterdam event.
Last month, the three-year-old company received more than $600 million in funding from investors, including internet heavyweight Tencent Holdings Ltd.
The money will be used to finance Mobike’s overseas expansion. Mobike is eyeing 200 cities where it wants a presence by this year-end. It currently operates in more than 130 cities in China, and Singapore and Japan.
Ofo, which is backed by China’s largest ride-hailing company Didi Chuxing, also announced ambitious plans of marching into 20 countries by this year-end. It already has a presence in Singapore, Kazakhstan, and a pilot project in the United States.
“In stark contrast to the previous generation of Chinese internet players that focused on domestic growth until the market became saturated, Mobike and Ofo are far more aware of the aspects of globalization and opportunities therein,” said Zhang Xu, a transportation analyst at Beijing-based market research house Analysys.
“They are setting sights on the West for expansion even when the growth momentum is robust at home,” Zhang said.
According to Analysys, in April, Mobike had 20.7 million monthly active users. In comparison, Ofo was said to have 20.4 million monthly active users. Both companies saw high quarterly growth in numbers of users.
“Scanning the QR code using my smartphone to unlock the shared bike is convenient and effective. A bicycle ride for short-distance needs can save lots of time and energy, especially amid traffic congestion,” said Hassan, 30, from Pakistan, a visiting fellow at Renmin University of China in Beijing.
Word of mouth and online social media messaging has led to awareness of China’s shared bikes across the world.
Chris Martin, a UK entrepreneur who heads Mobike’s international expansion department, helped negotiate the company’s partnership with the Manchester City Council and Transport for Greater Manchester. The three sides are establishing a voluntary code of working to make sure that bike-sharing services operate in a way that does not inconvenience other road users.
“It took several months for us to communicate with local authorities,” Martin said. “Starting with the initial 1,000 bicycles, we hope to learn in detail how UK users differ from their Chinese counterparts, and fine-tune our local strategy.”
Mobike is teaming up with CityVerve, a UK tech company, and telecom major Vodafone in building an internet-of-things platform to manage its bicycles in the UK. Its data will be stored on Microsoft’s cloud service.
Ofo is also customizing its overseas services. Yu Xin, co-founder of Ofo, said in an exclusive interview with China Daily that the company redesigned its bicycle for Singapore. It is also working closely with the local government to establish over 100 preferred parking zones, to pre-empt its two-wheelers getting piled up in heaps on the sidewalks during weekends and holidays.