A Mingbike employee tests Shanghai's first digital bike parking lot, set up on Guoqing Road, Jing'an, in April.
Digital technology, which allows people to hire, pay for and unlock shared bikes, may also provide a solution to the vexing problem of illegally parked bikes littering pedestrian walkways and curbsides.
In April, Shanghai's first digital bike parking lot was set up on Guoqing Road in Jing'an District. Since then, 15 such parking areas have been established in a 3-square-kilometer ring around the Qufu Road Metro station.
Digital parking stations, also known as "electronic fencing," is a much-discussed technology. Under the system, share-bike riders keep accruing charges if they don't return the bikes to designated spaces equipped with sensors. The lot on Guoqing Road has a pole with sensors and is enclosed by white lines painted on the ground.
The project was set up by Mingbike, one of the city's major bike-sharing companies, in cooperation with the Beizhan subdistrict in Jing'an. Authorities in districts such as Huangpu and Chongming are considering adopting the idea.
As the number of parked bikes obstructing walkways grows, authorities have been forced to try to bring some order to the popular trend. Their solutions have included physically removing illegally parked parks from heavily congested areas. But that costs money and manpower.
When a Shanghai Daily reporter tried to lock a Mingbike outside the Qufu Road station, her smartphone application warned her that she was using temporary parking and would be charged after 30 minutes. To prevent that, the bike had to be returned to a digital parking station shown on the application. Users who fail to move their bike in time lose 20 credit points in the system and have to pay 5 yuan (74 US cents) for maintenance costs. However, riders can still park wherever they choose outside the 3-square-kilometer restricted zone, and the system applies only to Mingbikes.
"Although it's an inconvenience for some bike riders, I think it's a good idea," said Li Yuxuan, 24, who works nearby. "The system made me park my bike in a proper place. If I go to a supermarket now, I have to park my bike in the proper zone."
It's somewhat ironic that a nation that was once dominated by bicycles, not cars, should have a modern headache with a resurgence of bicycles. Shared-bike programs are popular, especially for short-distance trips in cities congested with cars. They allow users to locate, pay for and unlock shared-bikes with their smartphones, then deposit the bikes at their destinations.
The problem now lies in the parking. Public bicycle hire programs that began several years ago required users to return the bikes to their home docks. But private programs that have entered the business allow users to park their bikes pretty much anywhere because technology tracks the bikes' locations and advises smartphone users where they can find one nearby.
"Electronic fencing is useful," said Lin Yansong, director of the subdistrict's community development office. "Officers who arrange the bike parking say Mingbike is more organized than other bike operators, but that accounts for only a small portion of shared bikes here."
Chen Yuying, chief executive of Mingbike, said the technology behind digital parking is GPS and Bluetooth. Chen said the whole shared-bike economy needs better management. Especially, as the more popular it becomes with residents, the more bikes will appear on the roads.
"Docks for traditional public bike programs were scattered and often hard to find," he said. "Digital parking stations occupy less space and are cheaper to operate." The company has recently set up more parking stations in Zhangjiang area.
Other bike-sharing companies are expected to adopt electronic fencing systems.
Ofo said it will apply BeiDou Navigation technology to its electronic fencing development. And Mobike said it is developing a trial project called smart Mobike Preferred Location. It will feature sites with sensor poles. The technology will be able to pinpoint parking lots that are full and direct biker users to area with empty spaces. Bike users will be encouraged to use the electronic fencing sites via cash or credit awards.
Chen Xiaohong, a professor at the College of Transportation Engineering at Tongji University, said standards need to be adopted to guide development of electronic parking areas, including the size and location of optimal sites. She noted the chaos that might ensue if bike-sharing companies are allowed to create enclosed parking areas willy-nilly in public spaces.
"With these questions unanswered, the system may not curb illegal parking and may cause new troubles in urban governance," Chen said, adding that a unified digital parking standard for all smart-bike locks would be helpful. "There are still many things to explore."