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A Chinese woman rides one of Ofo’s yellow bikes in Beijing. Photograph: Wu Hong/EPA
Even through Beijing’s nicotine-tinged smog you can make out the multi-coloured frames, gliding through the pea soup towards a greener future.
In recent months an unmissable fleet of fluorescent orange, canary yellow and ocean blue bicycles has hit the streets of urban China as part of a hi-tech bike-sharing boom that entrepreneurs hope will make them rich while simultaneously transforming the country’s traffic-clogged cities.
“We want to solve problems by getting bikes back on to the streets of our cities,” said Li Zekun, the 25-year-old marketing director of Ofo, one of the startups spearheading this 21st-century transport revolution.
From Shanghai to Sichuan province, bike-sharing schemes are being rolled out on an unprecedented scale in an effort to slash congestion and air pollution by putting a country once known as the “Kingdom of Bicycles” back on two wheels.
Ofo, so named because of the word’s resemblance to a bicycle, has put about 250,000 of its bright yellow bikes to work since late 2015, of which around 40,000-50,000 are in the capital, according to Li.
“For short journeys, bikes are the best form of transport,” Li enthused at Ofo’s headquarters in the Internet Finance Centre, a 26-floor building in western Beijing. “You never know when a bus might come. It might not be easy to find a taxi. Walking might take you too long and tire you out.”
Other startups, such as Mobike and Bluegogo, are seeking to get in on the act, depositing truckloads of bicycles on sidewalks and street corners across China.
Li Gang, Bluegogo’s 28-year-old chief executive, said he believed bike sharing would bring “mental joy” to millions of Chinese citizens as well as boosting their health and fitness levels.
It was his mission “to enable everyone to enjoy the happiness of bike riding”, he said.
“I predict that by next year millions of people will be riding bikes in Beijing every day,” said the entrepreneur, whose firm has 50,000 bikes spread across three cities – Chengdu, Guangzhou and Shenzhen – and plans to expand to a new city every fortnight.
“More people will choose this healthy way to get around so the number of cars on the roads will decrease dramatically and this will really help the climate and the environment,” he said.
In the years following Mao Zedong’s 1949 communist takeover, bikes ruled supreme in China and the Flying Pigeon – the eastern equivalent of the Raleigh Roadster – became one of the country’s most recognisable symbols.
But two-wheeled travel began to go out of fashion as China became more open to the world, ushering in decades of economic boom and a high demand for cars.
In 1980, almost 63% of commuters cycled to work, the Beijing Morning Post reported last year, citing government data. But by 2000 that number had plummeted to 38% and today it stands at less than 12%.
Car use, meanwhile, has rocketed. In 2010 China overtook the US to become the world’s largest car market, with 13.5m vehicles sold in just 12 months. This year, manufacturers expect to sell almost 23m passenger cars.
That jump from two to four wheels has been music to the ears of international car manufacturers, but it has resulted in gridlock and contributed to a pollution crisis experts blame for hundreds of thousands of premature deaths every year.
According to state media, Beijing has 5.65m registered vehicles which annually pump 500,000 tonnes of pollutants into the atmosphere. And with China now waging a high-profile “war on pollution”, cities hope a return to the era of the bicycle can help them clean up at least some of the smog. Transport officials in Beijing are aiming to get 18% of commuters riding to work by 2020.
Public bike-sharing schemes, of which there are more than 500 around the world, have existed in China for about a decade but the scale on which these private initiatives are being rolled out is unprecedented.
Reports in the Chinese media suggest hundreds of thousands of shared bikes have been put into action. That compares with 11,500 operating in the British capital, according to Transport for London.
The other factor making China’s bike-sharing boom stand out is the technology.
While those sharing bikes in cities such as London must pick them up and park them at docking stations, tracking technology means Chinese users can collect and park their bikes wherever they please.
Mobike’s orange-wheeled bikes have a GPS system that allows users to locate them using a map on the company’s smartphone app.