There was a time in China when the solid steel-framed bicycle was the perfect representation of its pace of life. A man in a black cap pedaling down a market street, bearing fruits and vegetables in his front wire basket — that was the full expression of Chinese commerce.
But that has long since changed. Bicycles began disappearing from Beijing and other cities two decades ago, replaced by cars as China's fortunes rose. There are now 6 million cars on Beijing's streets alone; last year, some 28 million cars were sold across China.
But China's push to lower emissions, and the sheer impracticality of driving on traffic-clogged streets, means that in some places bikes are having a second coming — in the form of bike-shares. The new image of the streets of Beijing is a millennial riding a sturdy, brightly colored bicycle — orange, yellow or green, depending on the brand. More than two dozen bike-share companies are operating in China now.
A man prepares to unlock a Mobike shared bicycle parked along a street in Beijing.
There are between 16 million and 18 million shared bikes on China's streets — dockless, with an automatic electronic wheel lock. Once locked, the bikes can be safely left unattended, and they are — thousands at a time. On busy city corners, they are tossed into messy piles, frame upon colorful frame.