In early 2013, China was home to 79 bike sharing programs, sending some 358,000 public bicycles to cities that mostly rest on the east coast of China. In a country where bicycles have long been a symbol of under-development, much progress has been made to rehabilitate and modernize their image. Most importantly, this environmentally friendly method of transportation costs little in China, with the first hour free and subsequent hours priced at 1 RMB per hour (~$0.16 USD) in Beijing and Hangzhou.

Still, China lags far behind in the development of bike sharing programs compared globally. The number of bikes has dropped sharply in the past fifteen years in contrast to a more than tenfold increase in the number of cars. The first attempt to develop bike sharing programs in Beijing dates back to 2005, when several private companies began their services separately. These initiatives peaked in 2008. Due to high management costs, low returns, confusing charging standards and few governmental subsidies, these programs proved unsustainable. Beijing only launched its current program in 2012, but it’s still too early to gauge its long-term impact and effect.

China does have one particularly booming bike share program in Hangzhou. Opened in 2008, the program boasts more than sixty thousand bikes. More than 2,400 stations integrate with existing bus and subway networks. What makes the Hangzhou program stand out within China is its unique financial system. The local government pays the expenditures and private companies run the program. Public service advertisements appear in stations and on the bicycles to communicate that the bikes are non-profit property for the people. What’s more, dedicated bike lanes have been carved out of the vast majority of roads to guarantee the safety of biking in cities.

Bike Sharing Program-global-China-Untapped Cities-Celeste Zhou4An incomplete map of bike stations in Hangzhou. Source: Touding

Though Hangzhou sets a promising example for other cities, blind imitation won’t work due to the varied attributes of Chinese cities. The success of the bike shares in Hangzhou is in part due to its relative stagnation in other public transportation methods, according to local residents.

Most crucially, there are some obstacles that could only be overcome by changing mindsets instead of techniques. One way to do so is subsidizing the bike shares on par with subway and bus services–sending a clear message that bicycles are part of the public transit system.