GoBee Bike’s recent launch of their bike-sharing app has witnessed a rocky beginning, but its co-founder Claude Ducharme believes they have the potential to revolutionise the way Hongkongers move around the city.
Photo credits: GoBee Bike
It was 8.30 a.m. on a Monday morning, the height of rush hour at Paddington Station in London, a swarm of at least 100 men and women in suits sped out of the station onto Praed Street. Unlike the average commuter you would see pouring out of Central MTR station, these people were riding on two large wheels held together by a slick metal frame. They were part of the 130,000 Londoners who cycle the entire journey or last leg of their commute to work every day.
This Victorian invention has recently made a comeback in major cities across the world by incorporating 21st century technology. Companies such as Ofo and Mobike have introduced bicycle-sharing mobile applications that enable users to unlock a bicycle, ride it, and then simply leave it on the streets once they have reached their destination. This eliminates the hassle of searching for a dock and is much cheaper to operate compared to installing bicycle-parking docks everywhere in the city. These apps have introduced over two million new public bicycles to cities across China, with 450,00 of them located in Shanghai alone. Ofo and Mobike are hoping to expand globally after trialling their programmes in Manchester and Cambridge respectively. Similar bike-sharing apps, such as LimeBike in Seattle and oBike in Singapore, are also seeing initial success and potential for growth.
Surely Asia’s Global City would be capable of replicating this global success. The notion of Hong Kong’s dense urban environment preventing cycling from becoming popular is a misinformed one. Although the streets of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island are notoriously narrow and dense with traffic, they are no better than those of New York or London, yet both cities have introduced cycle lanes and bicycle sharing systems in their core urban areas. Furthermore, the new towns of New Territories, home to half of Hong Kong’s population, were built with a labyrinth of segregated cycle paths that connects almost all major housing estates and shopping complexes. Albeit, this wealth of cycling infrastructure is still under-utillised during the weekdays, but overwhelmed with amateur cyclists in the weekends and public holidays. Hong Kong is yet to see a noticeable trend in people replacing four-wheels with two.
The problem is not the absence of infrastructure, but the sheer inconvenience of owning or renting a bicycle. Private rental stores located along major cycle tracks have been in existence for decades, but they have been slow to attract the likes of commuters. As these stores rent out bicycles on a per-day basis, they mainly target tourists and those who cycle for leisure, not those who would like to cycle the last mile between the MTR station and their home.
Innovative entrepreneurships, with GoBee Bike as the prime example in Hong Kong, offer a newfound convenience that suits time-savvy commuters, as riders can seamlessly rent a bicycle using their smartphone application and park it near their destination. Over three months into its launch, its fleet has increased from 400 to 6,000 bicycles covering most new towns in the New Territories. Its co-founder and Chief Technical Officer, Claude Ducharme, says that increasing demand has prompted them to invest USD 9 million to purchase new bicycles. He is optimistic that Hongkongers could welcome cycling as an up-and-coming mode of transport that is cost friendly, environmentally friendly and the most important of all, able to help burn off those extra calories from that McDonald’s lunch.
Yet since GoBee Bike’s launch of their mobile bicycle rental application in April, much attention has been unduly placed on skepticisms of the system’s feasibility. Many local residents have raised concerns about these free-roaming bikes being haphazardly parked and obstructing passageways; and district councilors are quick to jump on the bandwagon to voice out against GoBee Bike’s ubiquitous presence.
In response to these issues, Ducharme says that they have introduced features in the application to encourage riders to park responsibly. Discounts are given to riders who park in designated “hot-spots” and riders who move poorly parked bicycles away from being an obstruction. They are also working with the government, private developers and hotels to introduce more designated parking spaces.
GoBee Bike’s ambition of introducing cycling into the fabric of life in Hong Kong is not a far-fetched one, but a lot of work needs to be done. They have organised community rides to engage the local community and familiarise them with this new innovation. These were so over-subscribed that extra ones were held. They believe that their existing users are the best ambassadors for cycling by spreading the word to their friends and family. In the near future, they hope to target students by campaigning across nine universities and introducing promotional codes for them.
The government has also changed its previously nonchalant attitude towards cycling. According to a press release in June, former Secretary for Transport and Housing, Anthony Cheung Bing-leung stated that the government recognised cycling as more than a form of recreation and wanted to promote cycling for short-distance commuting. He mentioned improving existing cycle tracks, substantially increasing bicycle parking facilities, and incorporating cycling infrastructure into new developments such as Kai Tak.
That being said, it is right to bear in mind that all is not a rosy future ahead. For the many who are less familiar with smartphone technology, mobile bicycle rental services remain inaccessible. GoBee Bike is also less of a household name for residents living in urban areas, as the government is still reluctant to introduce cycle lanes to Kowloon and Hong Kong Island.