Sunday, March 12, 2017

Getting Around

Years ago, I had the privilege of attending a Beach Boys concert. I realize I am dating myself by admitting that but, to my credit, the fabled Boys were past their prime when I saw them, so maybe I am not dating myself too badly. Mike Wilson introduced their next number by saying: “I can't imagine putting a song out called 'I Get Around' these days...”. The concert was in the early 80s, when the AIDS epidemic was at its height and people were assiduously abstaining from 'getting around'. Just to put his comment into context.

This article has nothing to do with 'getting around' and everything to do with getting around. Getting around Wuhan, that is. And, presumably, other cities in China – which I can only visit if I wish to pay exhorbitant rates for hotel rooms, something I am unwilling to do.

In my early days here, means of getting around Wuhan consisted of bus, taxi, assorted personal conveyances from POVs to electric scooters to human-powered bikes. There were also bike rentals: green machines tethered to stands sprinkled all over the city. I never rented such a bike; I had no idea how to.

And, my first few years here did not see me in the best of health. Last thing I wanted was to jump on a bike and pedal myself all over the city.

People made good use of those 'city bikes'. From my bus window, I could see green Wuhan Bikes rolling everywhere. As I understood the system, one could rent a bike for a set per-hour fee – no idea how much, and dock it at whichever station they came closest to when they were done riding. Such a concession was even set up on campus, near the housing area. I never saw anyone rent a bike from that outlet, and within 6 months, it was taken out again.

Early last year, all of the green Wuhan Bike stands were taken out, to be replaced by a high-tech, sophisicated, blue Wuhan Bike system. By this time I had my own bike, but thought I might try the new bikes, just for the experience. They were substantially upgraded from  the green bike system: a basket attached to the handlebars, for one. Another, more important feature for me, was that the seat could be adjusted. I really don't fit on tiny Chinese bikes.

The new, fancy Wuhan Bike system.

I wondered why it seemed that so few people rode these new bikes, but soon learned: one has to enroll in the government program, which permits you to download and install their app on your SmartPhone, from where the fees for riding would be deducted. Also, you had to return the bike to its original docking station; no longer could you ride to your destination and end your rental there. All over the city, the blue bikes languished, becoming dusty from the same pervasive, persistent particles that afflict my home.

The bikes started appearing last summer, first in ones and twos, and then in hordes, especially around subway exits and major bus stops. They are of simple construction: a brushed silver frame with black handlebars and bright orange, 5-spoked wheels. A bell is integrated into the handlebars, where maybe a gearshift would be. They are coaster bikes with disc brakes, and the seat is not adjustable. They are called MoBikes.   

A first-generation MoBike

Yes, these days there are 5 subway lines in Wuhan, vastly increasing the transportation options available when I first came here. And more are underway – pun intended. Their ongoing construction explains the dust problem. In part, at least.

At first, people seemed wary of MoBikes. Looking both enticing for their design and color scheme, and sinister for their appearing magically, out of nowhere, it took a while before the first brave soul would endeavor to ride one. Or maybe directions on how to rent one simply hadn't published yet.

One has to download an app, as with the government bikes, but no one is required to register for permission to ride. The app permits you to scan the QR code on the bike's gooseneck. A 250 Yuan deposit is deducted from your bank card – which, for most people is tied to their Alipay virtual wallet, another app. The actual rental fee is only 1 Yuan, and some weekends, you can ride for free!

Once you scan the QR code, the bike unlocks and you are free to ride to your heart's content. When you are done riding, simply scan the code again, and the bike will lock, chirping like a car's locking system, and your deposit, minus 1 Yuan, is credited back to your virtual wallet. You can leave the bike anywhere you choose; MoBikes have no docking stations.

I have ridden a MoBike. Thanks to my friend Shane, who has the app, and rode one from the bus station to my house, I saw my chance to conduct research and report.

The handlebars are narrow but the grips felt divine in my hands, negating the possible shoulder ache from holding my arms so narrowly. The seat is incorporated into the frame; no height adjustment possible. The bike feels sturdy: I challenged it as best I could over pavement and dirt path alike, even though my knees were up to my chest on each pedal upstroke.

There are now 2 generations of MoBikes. The first, with its orange-spoked wheels and low seat, and the second, which has traditional spokes, an adjustable seat and a basket on the handlebars, which are of normal width. I've not ridden a new generation MoBike, but I've seen them.  

A second-generation MoBike

These days, in spite of all of the buses, and five subway lines (more underway!), and the taxis, Uber cars and POVs, people everywhere in Wuhan are riding MoBikes. Our campus is lousy with them! Students, instead of rushing out of the classroom to grab some food (or out of sheer boredom) when the bell rings, are fleeing their seats in order to grab a MoBike before anyone else. People are learning to ride on MoBikes. Just yesterday, astride my own sleek machine, I shouted encouragement to a fledgling MoBike rider.

Meanwhile, the government's high-tech, sophisticated bike system gathers dust.

As an aside: China's virtual world is so advanced, I wonder how I will adjust to limited social functions, once I leave here. I've recently discovered the convenience and security of an electronic wallet, for example. I can use Alipay to transfer money as well as pay at point of sale locations, from high end shops in malls to vegetable stands at the farmer's market. And now I have to give it up?

Check out this BBC article, that talks about how advanced China's virtual world really is:

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