Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Park Your Policy Here For Now, But Not Your Bike

It’s not a clampdown, but the beginnings of a finding some way forward on bike-sharing, at least in one part of Nanjing.

Today’s edition of Nanjing Daily [南京日] carries the news that Xinjiekou [新街口]--the center of Nanjing and its main shopping district--has begun to institute changes to the ways in which share-bikes are distributed and parked there. According to the report, spaces to leave share-bikes for use will now be limited, and after 30 minutes, the affiliated company must remove share-bikes that are not being used.

These measures are clearly stopgaps to deal with the growing problem of bike-sharing in localities here—one which the account states, at least in Nanjing’s central shopping area, “has become more strained” [更加紧张].

The Xinjiekou Administrative Management Committee—one of the many departments and bureaus here that oversee zones (instead of having a specific policy portfolio, such as transportation in general)—stated that since January, six separate bike-sharing companies have appeared in Nanjing, and that while the local government isn’t out to prohibit their activities, “there are 0.37 square kilometers of the Xinjiekou core area, and the non-motorized parking area [that is, anything that isn’t a car or a delivery truck] can only accommodate 2500 to 3000 non-motor vehicles.” The problem, according to Director Lu Minmin [陆敏敏], is that “a lot of people after the end of shopping, often choose subway, bus, taxi and other ways to leave,” and the resulting pedestrian traffic is often heavy. The sudden influx of shared-bikes competing for already tight space has made sidewalks more difficult to park on and to navigate.

One parking attendant quoted in the article estimated that recently there are hundreds of shared bicycles competing with electric bikes, motorcycles, and other vehicles for parking spots, many of the latter piloted by people employed in the area and forced to find spaces away from their workplaces. “The local operators are trying to maintain the order of parking,” Lu noted, “but because of the lack of manpower, it’s only a drop of water in the ocean [杯水车薪].” Something had to be done, has to be done, or at least tried.

This is not some draconian directive being announced that Nanjing city authorities will implement from above without further consideration or consultation. Nanjing doesn’t work that way. In fact, the report noted that “Qinhuai District parking facilities management center director Fang Xiaojun [方晓俊] suggested that the various operators should establish an autonomous coalition…to coordinate ways in which to allocate and maintain order for bike-share parking.” So there's room for discussion and options.

Interestingly, Nanjing Daily—in what is surely an effort to convey the sentiment that options other than outright bans exist—has a lengthy article a few pages later, extolling the bike-sharing programs currently operating abroad, with nary a critical word to say about any of them. That positive presentation signals that there’s still a strong chance that whatever is done here to deal with the challenges of bike-sharing can still be brokered locally in Nanjing, instead of being imposed by Beijing in its usual Our Size Fits All approach.

Which doesn’t mean that coming up with a new approach for Nanjing is going to be straightforward. Indeed, there were signs of incoordination from the start.

Nanjing authorities didn't do their best job of announcing this new policy—which is striking in a small way at least because they're usually as proactive in soliciting views and notifying the public as they are in policymaking itself. But here word of the new restrictions first appeared on social media here as bike-share riders reported being told to park elsewhere; the aforementioned Xinjiekou Administrative Management Committee gathered local reporters together to announce what they were up to after those reports started causing concern. Somewhere there was a communications breakdown, probably because it was a Monday when all government officials are tied up in meetings to greet and plan the new week. It’s also possible the delay was intentional, to test local reaction, and go with what various officials could agree on for the time being.

The larger point to be made here is that this is yet another case of local issues in China—the ones that really matter to residents far more than what’s too often reported on (non-existent environmental or feminist movements, widespread outrage at Seoul, and so on). While the narrative told by more than a few observers bound to the Beijing-Shanghai Beltway is about the potential for problems--too much expansion too fast, too much credit, and another bubble in China that’s also set to burst, leading to citizen outrage and cries for democracy--actual inhabitants here see matters rather differently. This is not rulers and ruled fighting against each other, but each struggling to make ways without making too many bumps. What’s happening is not easy, but nor is it violent or unstable. From a local perspective, it’s people trying yet again to find ways to share the various roads they have to ride and walk on.

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