Mid-Life Cycling

Mid-Life Cycling

30 March 2017

Keeping Kids Off Bike-Share Bikes

I haven't been to China.  At one time in my life, it was at the top of my "bucket list" of places to go.  That was after someone I knew spent a couple of months there about a quarter of a century ago.  She, like other visitors of the time, described it as a "land of bikes", where pedaled two-wheeled conveyances far outnumbered any other kind of vehicle "by about five hundred to one".  And she is an old-school New Englander who isn't given to exaggeration!

From what I heard, that started to change a few years later, as more Chinese people could afford automobiles.  I read accounts of bicycle-thronged streets that had become choked with cars ten or fifteen years later.  It seemed sad, but, really, no different from what happened decades earlier in the US and other places:  Once people had the means to drive, their bicycles were left to collect dust, or dropped in the dustbin.

These days, from what I've been reading, the bicycle has been making a "comeback".  A few years ago, Beijing's bike-share program seemed like a "bust", as automobiles came to be seen as not only symbols of prosperity, but as prerequisites to marriage, at least for some families.  But in cities like the Chinese capital, streets--particularly those in older neighborhoods--are narrow and in other ways ill-suited to automotive traffic.  Plus, thickening smog led to illness and in other ways degraded people's quality of life, and people found that their commutes were taking longer and longer due to snarled traffic.  

So the bicycle seems to be experiencing a renaissance in The Land of Dragons.  Beijing's bike share program is booming, as are those in other Chinese cities. (Of the world's 15 largest bike share programs, only two--those of Paris and London--aren't in China.)  And start-up companies like Mobike are eliminating the ports or docks other share programs use by offering an app that locates bikes that can be unlocked with a code that's sent to a user's phone.

Making bikes easier to access sounds great, at least for some people.  It has, however, led to some unintended consequences.  As someone who teaches and who didn't touch a computer until age 41, I know firsthand that kids are often more tech-savvy than their elders--in part because they have had access to the same devices, but at much earlier ages.


Using the Ofo bike-sharing app in Shanghai


Thus, a kid can access a bike-share or "Uber" bike as easily as anyone else can.  One problem is that Chinese law forbids children under the age of 12 from riding bikes on public roads.  But the consequences for a kid can be even worse than merely becoming a scofflaw:  Although bicycles are once again becoming a common sight, there is still a lot of motorized traffic on major thoroughfares, and even on side roads.  Adult Chinese cyclists, like their counterparts in other countries, have to exercise caution.  Even doing that, though, may not be enough to ensure a child's safety.

That point was driven home with the death of an 11-year-old boy in Shanghai.   While details of the tragedy haven't been revealed, we know that he was riding a bike from Ofo, one of the two main share companies in that city, on a busy road in the downtown area.  

Ofo is cooperating with the investigation and says it working on a way of deterring under-12s from using their bikes.  Some have suggested that the bright yellow color of its  machines (and the bright orange of Mobike, its rival) might entice young riders .  Others have said that Ofo, Mobike and anyone else who might enter the bike-sharing business should restrict access to their wheels in and around schools and other places frequented by children.

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