Walking along the streets of Beijing, it’s not uncommon to see sights like this:

Shared bikes from various operators piled up haphazardly in Beijing in January, 2019. (Picture: Thomas Peter/Reuters)

For a while, shared bikes were all the rage in China. At the height of the bike-sharing boom in 2016, there were believed to be some 60 startups all trying to fill up street corners with bikes.

The idea is to make it as easy as possible for users to find a bike anywhere at any time, and allow them to quickly ride off after scanning a QR code using a smartphone app. The reality is that bikes that can be found anywhere are leading to clogged sidewalks and massive thefts.

This week, we found out just exactly how many shared bikes are choking up the Chinese capital. According to Beijing’s transport authorities, the number is 1.91 million. That’s one bike for every 11 permanent residents in Beijing. What’s more, fewer than half of these bikes were actively in use as of April. In other words, there are more than 955,000 “zombie” bikes lying around the city like trash.

China’s four largest cities -- Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou -- have already banned companies from adding new shared bikes. Under a new campaign, Beijing is asking bike sharing firms to collect damaged or abandoned bikes in public areas. Companies are also ordered to clean up bikes that are blocking roads, sidewalks and green areas.

A man transporting shared bikes from Mobike near the Wangfujing shopping area in Beijing in October, 2018. (Picture: Thomas Peter/Reuters)

For Beijing’s residents, the pileup of shared bikes doesn’t just create a widespread nuisance. In some cases, it may have also led to deadly consequences. Last year, state media reported that an Audi sedan plowed into a woman at a crosswalk in Beijing, killing two people and injuring three others. The adjacent sidewalks were said to be clogged up with shared bikes and motorbikes, leaving little space for pedestrians to walk.

Mobike, one of the biggest remaining players in China’s bike sharing industry, says it fully supports Beijing’s cleanup campaign, having reduced its fleet by more than 100,000 bikes since late 2017. It also says it recycles all damaged or retired bikes. Hellobike, another bike sharing startup, says it actively cooperates with government departments and has spent more than six months replacing old bikes.

(Abacus is a unit of the South China Morning Post, which is owned by Alibaba, whose financial arm Ant Financial is an investor in Mobike.)