Meituan Dianping, China’s leading ecommerce platform for services, has recorded an upturn in its bike-sharing business, as more commuters shift away from crowded modes of transport amid the coronavirus crisis.

“Because of the pandemic, many people prioritized sharing bikes over public transportation,” Meituan said in a statement. “We are seeing an increasing number of bikers choosing to ride bikes directly to their destination without transfer to other means of transportation.”

The total amount of bike-sharing rides nationwide during the first work week in March was up 86% from the same period two weeks ago, and rose 94% compared with the week-long Lunar New Year holiday period, according to a recent report by Meituan Bike. In Beijing, the daily average growth of rides was up 187%, compared with the Lunar New Year week.

Analysts predict the recent revival in the use of bike-sharing services across China to be temporary. (Picture: Sam Tsang)

Users are also riding bikes for a longer period, the report said. The nationwide average for riding distance was 1.5 kilometers during that week in March, up 24.7% from two weeks ago. User orders for trips of more than 3 kms were also double from the same period two months ago.

Hong Kong-listed Meituan declined to provide comparable data from the same period a year ago.

The increased numbers provide some welcome news for Meituan Bike, formerly known as Mobike, which survived China’s brutal bike-sharing wars a few years ago, when billions were spent by industry players to support cutthroat pricing as well as rapid domestic and international expansion.

Analysts, however, said Meituan’s data merely showed a temporary bump for that market.

“After the pandemic, the bike-sharing industry’s performance is likely to return to the previous level,” said Sun Naiyue, an analyst with Chinese research firm Analysys.

“If they compare the March data with the one during Lunar New Year, it will certainly rise because people stayed at home during the public holiday and during the lockdown of cities,” Sun said. “The people using shared bikes now are likely to go back using four-wheeled vehicles because they want a more comfortable and efficient ride.”

Hellobike, one of the remaining players in China’s bike-sharing market, had earlier reported a 137% increase in rides in Beijing on February 27 over the number on February 9. Shanghai-based Hellobike declined to provide comparable data from a year ago. Alibaba Group Holding, which owns the South China Morning Post, is an investor in Hellobike.

Bike-sharing took off in China in late 2016 with dozens of start-ups deploying millions of bicycles on city pavements, funded by billions of dollars in venture capital money. This market growth, however, cooled down as dozens of Chinese cities – including Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen – barred operators from putting more new bikes on the streets, which led to a swift consolidation.

“With the weather turning warmer, the user experience in bike-sharing will be compromised,” said Wang Xiaohui, deputy dean at the Institute of Internet Industry in Tsinghua University. “Bike-sharing doesn’t have a price advantage over public transport, so the industry’s performance will not improve [in the long term].”

(Abacus is a unit of the South China Morning Post.)