The so-called sharing economy has spread to a variety of fields such as cars and homes, and Japan has seen another rising trend in recent years — bicycles.

A growing number of municipalities and private firms are providing bikes to gauge whether such services will catch on.

Here are some questions and answers about bike-sharing in Japan:

Is bicycle-sharing really growing?

According to NTT Docomo Inc., which has been teaming up with municipalities to offer a bike-sharing service on an experimental basis, its bicycles were used about 1.8 million times in fiscal 2016, which ended March 31, up from 20,000 in fiscal 2012.

Docomo, Japan’s largest mobile phone carrier, is partnering with Koto, Chiyoda, Minato, Chuo, Shinjuku, Bunkyo and Ota wards in Tokyo. Around 4,200 two-wheelers were available at 281 “stations” as of March. Docomo also offers bike-sharing in the cities of Yokohama, Sendai, Hiroshima and Naha, Okinawa Prefecture.

In November, SoftBank Group Corp., another mobile phone carrier, started providing a system so that other companies can offer a bike-sharing service. The system includes a bicycle lock equipped with GPS and a mobile internet connection, which enable operators to locate rented bikes and users to book them on the internet.

East Japan Railway Co. has been providing the sharing service called Suicle since 2013, mainly in western Tokyo.

How do such systems work?

The operators try to set up their small stations in convenient locations. In general, they require users to become a registered member on their website, a process that includes giving a name, email address and credit card number.

When the rider wants to return the bicycle, it must be brought to a designated bike station.

The fee is roughly ¥100 to ¥250 per hour, depending on the operator.

What are people using bike-sharing for?

Docomo says commuting is the most popular use.

For instance, people who live far from a train station pick up a bicycle from a bike lot near their home and turn it in at a different one close to the train station.

A female user in her 40s interviewed by The Japan Times last week said she has been using Docomo’s service for about a year for commuting in Tokyo.

It takes more than an hour to get to her workplace in Koto Ward from her home in Shinagawa Ward by train with two transfers.

But she now gets off at an intermediate train station and picks up a shared bike to go to work. This reduces her commuting time to about 45 minutes, she said.

“It is more efficient to ride a bike on the way to work,” she said as she was returning a bike at a lot near JR Shinagawa Station.

Meanwhile, a customer survey conducted by Minato Ward found that 28 percent, the largest percentage, said they use bike-sharing for sightseeing, followed by 23 percent for shopping and 18 percent for business purposes.

Rikito Kobayashi, 30, who works for a real estate company in Minato Ward, said he often rides a shared bike to visit clients located within the ward.

He said it’s faster and costs less to use a bike than taking trains for these short business trips.

The Shinagawa woman and Kobayashi both said they were satisfied with the service, but it would be more convenient if there were more bike stations.

Can foreign travelers use the service?

Some bike-sharing operators, including Docomo, have English websites and guides to make the service available for foreign tourists.

Where did the idea come from?

Katsusuke Nishikawa, director of community transportation in Minato Ward, said the idea of a rental bicycle service was first floated more than a decade ago to tackle the issue of bikes parked illegally.

Such bicycles had been an eyesore. They also disturbed pedestrian traffic and blocked the way for blind people and those in wheelchairs, municipal officials say.

Nishikawa said times have changed, and the notion of sharing emerged.

“We thought we could apply this to bicycles … by sharing bikes, it could be possible to reduce the overall number,” he said.

Also, bike-sharing can be regarded as part of public transportation and can improve the efficiency of overall mobility, Nishikawa said.

For instance, as seen with the female commuter in Shinagawa Ward, there are cases in which it takes less time to ride a bike than to take a train.

The service can also contribute to cutting carbon dioxide emissions and promoting bike tourism, Nishikawa said.

Is there a downside?

Nishikawa pointed out that one problem with bike-sharing is that while at first blush it may seem to be environmentally friendly, the reality is more complicated.

Users returning bicycles tend to concentrate on certain bike stations, so the operator needs to pick up the bikes and redistribute them to other uncrowded spots using trucks, which means extra costs and vehicle exhaust.

Hisakazu Tsuboya, president of Docomo Bikeshare Inc., a Docomo subsidiary, agreed, saying that managing the redistribution of shared bicycles is a challenge, as there are now more than 4,000 of them on the streets of Tokyo.

“It is getting hard to predict where people will return them compared to when we were running the service with just a few hundred bikes,” he said.

Some users may think it would be better if they could return bicycles anywhere. For instance, users of some services in China, such as Mobike and Ofo, can basically return the bikes at any location.

But Tsuboya said it should be controlled, as he thinks bike-sharing should be considered a component of public transportation.

If people can leave the bikes anywhere, “they will become randomly parked bikes and might cause accidents and other problems,” he said.

Will bike-sharing continue to grow?

Docomo and Minato Ward officials said they plan to keep and expand the service in the future.

However, given that the fee is only a few hundred yen per use, “profitability is very low,” said Nishikawa of Minato Ward.

“If we do well, we can probably break even,” said Docomo’s Tsuboya, adding that the firm is trying to find ways to make the service economically sustainable.

He said the procurement cost can be lower if the operator prepares a massive number of bikes. Yet the number needs to be controlled if the goal is to make the service part of a well-organized public transportation network.

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