The World Leaders in Bike Sharing Programs are really all in China

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I must admit that I generally greet the regular semi-sensational internet titles about how China is Achieving Sustainability such as "China has just built 20 million miles of high speed rail when the USA can't build any" with a large degree of skepticism. For this I have three main justifications:

  1. Authoritarian governments can make absolute decisions about "green"1)I call these "green" as opposed to Sustainable, because I don't believe a project which doesn't incorporate democratic and/or participatory decision-making can be Sustainable infrastructure without all that pesky "consulting of the public" or "convincing anyone besides the leaders its a good idea" (which leads to things like empty buildings).
  2. Everything is bigger in China. China has over 4 times as many people than the USA with more than 160 cities of over 1 million so of course it is going to need more of everything to even stay the same on a per capita basis.
  3. I have doubts about the truth on the ground. Not that democratic governments are always trustworthy (see Bush II and Iraqi WMDs),2)The trust we have is built on a vibrant civil society providing independent data, verification etc.) but I have very little faith in the accurate reporting of Chinese governments-particularly on the sub-national level (even the Premier has his doubts).
So when I saw this my initial reaction was a raised eyebrow:

With numbers drawn from the amazing Bike Sharing World Map, Joseph Stromberg over on Vox.com describes how for all the hoopla attending the US and European growth of bike-sharing programs, Chinese cities are in a different dimension. He reports that China has 429,969 bikes in bike sharing programs (more than half the global total).3)It is worth noting that he also links to an article from the South China Morning Post which claims that their are 650,000 bikes in these programs in China. Did I say something about unreliable data.

Needless to say despite my instinctive skepticism I was impressed and somewhat startled that this phenomenon has flown so under the radar (at least mine). While I can't speak to the groundtruth of these bike totals I did wonder if this was just a result of China's large population and therefore proportionately these bike programs would look far less impressive. So using the numbers for the top 30 city bike-sharing programs I calculated how many bikes there were per thousand people and graphed the results below:4)I used population totals based on "urban" areas, whose definition is only approximately the same from country to country and may not be necessarily define the relevant population for the bike sharing operational area (e.g. Citibike's in Manhattan being useful for Staten Islanders) but is should give us a better idea of the potential reach of these new initiatives.

It is immediately apparent that any skepticism due to China's size is totally misplaced, its programs look even better now, with the first non-Chinese city not appearing until #17. One interesting trend that pops out is that China's really big cities (e.g. Beijing and Shanghai) are doing no better than their western counterparts in scaling their bike sharing programs up to their population. On the other hand there is a set of mid-size cities which have apparently launched world leading programs (and none of which I could find on a map without Google's help). Now, these 16 cities which beat out paris represent less than 10% of Chinese cities of over a million (one of them has less than this cut-off), so clearly this is a trend which has not spread everywhere.5)Biking may not always be the best option to promote depending on geographic and climatic conditions.

What this demonstrates is not so much the insufficiency of bike-sharing programs in the West's megacities (e.g. London, Paris, New York), but rather the (relative) insufficiency of the programs in mid-size cities. My old home of Phoenix Arizona is launching a bike-sharing program of 1,000 bikes which would put it well off the bottom of the chart with only 0.2 bikes per 1,000 residents. Take a bow Zhuzhou.

Aaron Redman is the founder of Achieving Sustainability and what passes for an administrator in these parts. Currently he is working on his Sustainability PhD at ASU while raising a baby daughter and taking advantage of nap time to foment discussions on this here blog.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. I call these "green" as opposed to Sustainable, because I don't believe a project which doesn't incorporate democratic and/or participatory decision-making can be Sustainable
2. The trust we have is built on a vibrant civil society providing independent data, verification etc.
3. It is worth noting that he also links to an article from the South China Morning Post which claims that their are 650,000 bikes in these programs in China. Did I say something about unreliable data.
4. I used population totals based on "urban" areas, whose definition is only approximately the same from country to country and may not be necessarily define the relevant population for the bike sharing operational area (e.g. Citibike's in Manhattan being useful for Staten Islanders) but is should give us a better idea of the potential reach of these new initiatives.
5. Biking may not always be the best option to promote depending on geographic and climatic conditions.
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