Pedal power: Bike-sharing services expand in Japan

by

Staff Writer

It’s a little past 7:30 a.m. at Shinagawa Station’s bustling Konan Exit. The air is crisp on this beautiful autumn morning, with hundreds of people passing through the fourth busiest rail hub in Tokyo on their way to various appointments.

Just off to the side of the station is a small park, where a few rows of red bicycles sit in a line. A moment of calm hangs over the parking area but it doesn’t last long. Within a matter of minutes, a seemingly endless stream of commuters riding similar bicycles appear at the entrance. One by one, they park their vehicles in an empty space and lock it.

The red bicycles are part of a bike-sharing experiment that is currently being conducted in seven wards in the metropolis.

Rental bikes can be borrowed and returned to any port participating in the scheme. The ports are typically found in parks, near train stations, at the foot of skyscrapers and large-scale apartment buildings as well as outside convenience stores.

Bicycle-sharing is part of the country’s nascent experiments into the so-called sharing economy, with Japan looking to widen its transportation options along the same lines as it has done in accommodation with services such as minpaku (private lodgings). While bicycle sharing is still operating on a trial basis in Japan, domestic and overseas companies, including Chinese bike-sharing services such as Mobike and Ofo, have begun to show an interest in the growing market.

Docomo Bikeshare Inc., a subsidiary of NTT Docomo Inc., the country’s largest mobile carrier, has been working with local governments to directly or indirectly operate bicycle-sharing experiments in central Tokyo and other areas across the nation.

According to Kiyotaka Hori, president and representative director of Docomo Bikeshare, the company originally began looking into bicycle-sharing from a social rather than profit-driven perspective.

Kiyotaka Hori, president and representative director of Docomo Bikeshare, sits on one of his bicycles at the company
Kiyotaka Hori, president and representative director of Docomo Bikeshare, sits on one of his bicycles at the company’s offices in Tokyo in September. | SATOKO KAWASAKI

“Docomo had been discussing how to provide an environmentally friendly service, to launch something that would become a platform to solve a social issue,” Hori recalls. “We began to look into the concept of ‘sharing’ to cut carbon dioxide and contribute to the environment … and decided to examine whether Japan could import a bicycle-sharing service from overseas as an experiment.”

Judging by the vibrant scene I had witnessed earlier outside Shinagawa Station, it looks like the experiment has been a success.

Yokohama was the first area to introduce the Docomo bicycles, launching the service in April 2011. From there, Koto Ward launched its services in 2012 — the first of the seven-wards area — while Sendai started offering services in 2013, followed by Chiyoda and Minato wards in 2014.

As of September 2017, Docomo Bikeshare has more than 5,600 bicycles in about 20 cities nationwide. About 250,000 members can make use of 521 ports across the country.

The bike-sharing service was used 40,000 times in 2011, a figure that jumped to 2.2 million in 2016.

“We are pleasantly surprised at how rapidly our business has been growing,” Hori says. “The sharing economy is about taking good care of things and establishing an efficient society through sharing. … I think our service has matched demand.”

Prices vary depending on the operator and location but, overall, they are around ¥100-150 for the first 30 minutes. Many operators have monthly payment plans and some offer corporate membership.

Although the renting process may differ depending on the company, the spread of smartphones and GPS technology are a key part of the sharing service.

Docomo Bikeshare users can either download an app onto their phone or submit a membership registration form online and receive a passcode.

Shared bicycles sit in a small park near Shinagawa Station in Tokyo.
Shared bicycles sit in a small park near Shinagawa Station in Tokyo. | MASAMI ITO

Once users have registered for the service, they enter a number on the card reader installed on each bicycle or tap a registered debit card or iPhone onto the reader and the bicycle will unlock automatically. Users who have finished with a bicycle simply need to find a parking port, lock it, press enter to conclude the rental period and walk away.

It’s no wonder people seem to come and go in a matter of seconds.

Docomo bicycles are predominantly electric bikes, which are costly and require maintenance, such as recharging batteries. Docomo Bikeshare has trucks driving around Tokyo 24 hours a day to check the bicycles and redistribute them once they find that a parking area has become overcrowded. The GPS tracking device enables the company to identify locations that have an excess number of bicycles as well as those with low batteries.

The process is both costly and time-consuming, but Hori says that it’s important to work closely with local governments to minimize the problems of bicycles being illegally parked or abandoned.

“It is a lot of work, but if we just left the bicycles, our service would not be well-received by the public. We value providing high-level service, and this is key to success as well as our responsibility as the operating company,” Hori says. “We are not a charity and we do need to make a profit, but our parent company did not start this business to be making lots of money in the first place.”

Early experiments

The concept of bicycle-sharing goes back to a failed project in the Netherlands in the 1960s. Dubbed the “White Bicycle Plan,” the aim was to improve Amsterdam’s transportation system by placing white bicycles around the city that could be used free of charge.

But Shigeki Kobayashi, vice-chairman of the Japan Share-Cycle Association, says the project ended in failure because the bicycles kept getting either stolen or damaged.

“It was a major failure … it proved that the system could not be based on the idea that human nature is fundamentally good,” Kobayashi says. “However, using bicycles as a public asset was a good idea and it spread throughout the world.”

However, it would take decades before bicycle-sharing would take off in other cities such as Paris, London and New York.

In Paris, a bicycle-sharing system called Velib’ was introduced in 2007 during Bertrand Delanoe’s term as mayor. Kobayashi says the initiative was extremely unpopular when it was launched but Delanoe refused to back down. Velib’ now oversees one of the largest bicycle-sharing services in the world, with 23,600 bikes and about 1,800 bicycle stations operating in Paris.

Santander Cycles runs a bike-sharing service in the United Kingdom.
Santander Cycles runs a bike-sharing service in the United Kingdom. | ISTOCK

Like Paris, London’s Barclays Cycle Hire, which is now called Santander Cycles, was launched in 2010 under the leadership of then-Mayor Boris Johnson. It currently has 11,500 bicycles and more than 750 docking stations around the city.

In Japan, meanwhile, a law to promote the use of bicycles took effect in May, stipulating the importance of relying less on motor vehicles that emit carbon dioxide and paving the way for bicycles to play a bigger role as a means of public transport. The law also outlines basic plans for the establishment of a bicycle-sharing system and creating bicycle lanes on roads.

Kobayashi, however, says that Japan lags far behind other countries in terms of community cycling services not only due to lack of political leadership but also the number of people who still ride on the sidewalks.

“While Paris and London started the bicycle revolution from scratch, Japan is actually starting from below zero because of a lack of common sense that bicycles are vehicles that should be on the road,” Kobayashi says. “Unless this changes, Japan will not be using bicycles as it actually should be.”

According to a survey taken by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, 87 cities and wards nationwide had officially introduced a bicycle-sharing system in 2016, while 13 other localities had conducted “social experiments.”

Minato Ward, along with other central wards — including Chiyoda, Chuo, Shinjuku and Shibuya — are still calling the service an “experiment” despite having introduced it three years ago.

Katsusuke Nishikawa, director of the Community Transportation Section in Minato Ward, cites a couple of reasons why bicycle-sharing is still “an experiment.”

First, Nishikawa says that there is no law that allows bike-sharing services to use public open spaces that are managed by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. Second, he adds that many bike-sharing operators are unprofitable.

Bicycle-sharing services are expanding worldwide.
Bicycle-sharing services are expanding worldwide. | ISTOCK

Public spaces can typically be found in certain areas within the grounds of large-scale buildings and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has granted special permission for bike-sharing operators to use them as ports for their experiments. Docomo Bikeshare estimates that about 70 percent of all of the ports it uses are located in such spaces.

“We are using these spaces on the condition that the bicycle-sharing system is experimental. Therefore, as long as there is no deregulation, we will have to continue this ‘experiment’ forever,” Nishikawa says. “We have put millions of yen into this project, and while we have to continue calling it an ‘experiment,’ we are actually taking the matter very seriously.”

Corporate membership is also important for areas such as Minato Ward. About 250,000 residents live in the ward, but the number of people in the area during the day spikes to around 940,000. Because the main users are commuters in the morning and evenings, Minato Ward is keen on getting company employees to use the bicycles during the day.

To make bicycle-sharing services truly convenient, all players agree that it’s important to have many more ports. Nishikawa says the 74 ports that are currently available in Minato Ward are far from adequate.

However, increasing the number of ports in any given area is easier said than done.

For example, Docomo Bikeshare’s Hori says that while his company has a parking agreement with three convenience stores — Seven-Eleven Japan Co., Lawson Inc. and FamilyMart Co. — very few ports are stationed at these locations for a number of reasons. Some of the stores are franchises, or the owner of the building may be a different entity, he says. In short, Docomo Bikeshare needs to go around many of these stores individually to obtain permission.

Minato Ward’s Nishikawa adds that it would be ideal to have more ports in residential areas, but that is harder to do because many people are reluctant to have bicycles parked in their neighborhood. Currently, relatively large-scale ports are located in public parks and buildings such as the Toranomon and Roppongi Hills complexes, while smaller ports are typically located outside of convenience stores.

Nishikawa says that ward officials have been talking to developers to explain the importance of including such ports in building designs at the beginning of the planning process.

“We explain that having these ports creates a new flow of people going to and from the locations, and point out that the business owners can also use the bicycles themselves,” Nishikawa says. “That is the beauty of a sharing economy — you don’t have to own a bicycle. … We have planted a seed and are now waiting for it to grow.”

Ofo manages a bike-sharing service in China.
Ofo manages a bike-sharing service in China. | ISTOCK

Regulatory issues

For now, various stakeholders are seeking to tap into the potential of such a service.

Popular flea-market application operator Mercari Inc. and DMM.com, which offers various online services, have both expressed an interest in offering bicycle-sharing services by early 2018. Chinese startup Ofo has announced a partnership with a subsidiary of SoftBank Group Corp. and will launch its service in Tokyo and Osaka over the next few months.

In August, fellow Chinese bike-sharing service Mobike began its service in Sapporo.

For the launch, Mobike Japan has signed partnership agreements with various local companies, including convenience store operator Secoma Co. and Sapporo Drug Store, where parking spaces are located.

Motohiro Kizaki, acting general manager of Mobike Japan.
Motohiro Kizaki, acting general manager of Mobike Japan. | SATOKO KAWASAKI

“We don’t think bike-sharing is something that can be done on our own,” says Motohiro Kizaki, acting general manager of Mobike Japan. “We want to work with other private companies and local governments to resolve problems or provide new benefits to their business.”

Unlike Docomo Bikeshare, Mobike’s bicycles are not electric. However, they do certainly look stylish. They are silver and orange in color and boast a design that hides their chains. The bikes also sport airless tires to make maintenance easier. Instead of using ports or racks, Mobike simply has an open parking space, usually marked with paint, a sticker or a flag.

The bikes are managed through a GPS system so Mobike knows exactly where they are at any given time. The company has set up a “credit point” system with which users can gain points for proper use of the bike or for reporting others’ improper use. On the other hand, if a user does not follow the rules — and, for example, parks in an unmarked space — points can be deducted. The more points users accumulate, the bigger discounts they are entitled to.

Amid news reports of abandoned bicycles in China becoming a social issue, Kizaki says that it’s important to ensure that Mobike users follow the rules wherever in the world they happen to be.

“All countries have rules and regulations in accordance with the law and users should obey them,” Kizaki says. “But since people’s manners are likely to differ, we introduced the credit point system to evaluate them.”

Chinese bike-sharing service Mobike has launched operations in Sapporo.
Chinese bike-sharing service Mobike has launched operations in Sapporo. | COURTESY OF MOBIKE JAPAN

Mobike was founded in 2015 and began its service in April 2016 in a small area of Shanghai. Kizaki explains that the company initially grew its services little by little, having realized the importance of working closely together with local governments to expand its business. Mobike is currently operating in eight countries, including Singapore, Italy, the U.S. and the U.K., and manages 7 million bikes.

“Bike-sharing in China has become so widespread that instead of owning personal bikes, people are using these shared bicycles to commute, go to school and get from point A to point B,” Kizaki says. “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that a bicycle-sharing system has definitely become established. It is being used as a means of public transportation.”

Japan, on the other hand, still looks like it has a long way to go.

Bicycle expert Kobayashi says he has been traveling around Japan to try and change the mindset of people in the country. He has tried to stop people from riding bicycles on sidewalks and lobbied the government to display signs on the streets showing where bicycles should be ridden.

The use of bicycles has spread in major cities worldwide owing to their health benefits and environmentally friendly aspects, Kobayashi says.

As far as Japan is concerned, he says, the enactment of a bicycle promotion law is the first step in the right direction.

“I don’t think bicycle-sharing in Japan has even begun because it is still a social experiment,” Kobayashi says. “Japan has finally recognized the importance of bicycles. The next step is to recognize bicycle-sharing as a public asset.”