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Monday, March 27, 2017, 12:14

Unchaining 'yellow fever' in UK

By Aren Xiao in London

Service provider ofo rolls out 500 shiny bicycles in Cambridge

Unchaining 'yellow fever' in UK
Ofo CEO Dai Wei and a collection of ofo bikes is on display before launch in a city. (P rovided To China Daily)

China's cycle rental startup ofo - pronounced "oh-ef-oh" - is seeking to overtake competitors such as Mobike by venturing overseas.

Ofo has chosen Cambridge as its entry point into Europe. This month onwards, 500 of the company's yellow and black bikes, ubiquitous in China's cities, will dot the streets of the university town.

Located in the flat Fenlands area, Cambridge is commonly referred to as the United Kingdom's unofficial "cycle city".

"We chose Cambridge because it's so bike-friendly," Angela Cai, head of communications at ofo, said. "Research showed that one-third of the city's population ride bicycles to go to school or work. It's the highest rate in the UK so there's a high demand."

We hope that the UK would serve as a gateway to our business in Europe, and Singapore for our business in South East Asia

Dai Wei, ofo CEO

Ofo is Beijing Bikelock Technology's mobile app-supported bike-sharing scheme, part-funded by Lei Jun who founded smartphone company Xiaomi, and Didi Chuxing, the Chinese ride-hailing service that acquired Uber's China operation last year.

It started off in 2014 on college campuses. Now, ofo operates across 22 cities and is China's second-largest bike-sharing service, valued at $500 million with 5 million registered users.

The bike-sharing market in China has become increasingly crowded - over a dozen services vie for the country's 4.32 million monthly active users, with Mobike, part-owned by Tencent Holdings, dominating 72.5 percent of the market share in 2016.

Late last year, ofo CEO Dai Wei announced plans to ship 20,000 bicycles abroad, choosing three foreign destinations for the the firm's global expansion: Cambridge, Singapore and Stanford, California.

"We hope that the UK would serve as a gateway to our business in Europe, and Singapore for our business in South East Asia," Dai said.

Bike-sharing schemes are not new to the UK. Thousands of Londoners get around daily on Santander Cycles, commonly referred to as "Boris bikes" because former London mayor (and now UK's foreign secretary) Boris Johnson had launched the scheme. Cambridge also had a bike-sharing program in the early 1990s that was quickly abandoned as most of the 300 bicycles were stolen within a year.

Ofo differs from most of Europe's public bike-sharing programs in several ways. The service does not use docking stations - users are free to pick up bikes wherever they find them and leave them wherever they please.

Riders use the ofo app - it is now available for download in English - to scan a quick-response or QR code or enter a bike registration number to gain access to a bike lock combination code. Users can search for nearby bikes on the app, and at night a service will collect bikes and redistribute them to high-use areas.

Ofo rides also come cheap - one trip will cost just 50 pence (US$63 cents) in the UK and US$1 in the US. In comparison, Santander Cycle hire starts at 2 pounds (US$2.5).

After the trial phase from next week in Cambridge, ofo will decide if it should expand its fleet beyond 500 bicycles.

"We have to make sure that we consider all aspects including testing the rides and getting feedback from users before we roll in more bikes," Cai said.

Around 40 percent of adults cycle at least three times a week in Cambridge, the highest rate for any British region and more than double that of the Isles of Scilly, in second place with 19 percent, according to Cycle UK.

Ofo conducted meetings with, and gained the support of, the Greater Cambridge Greater Peterborough Enterprise Partnership or GCGP and the Cambridgeshire County Council.

"The city of Cambridge was obviously attractive to ofo as the UK's cycling capital and obviously any increase in cycling has environmental benefits and helps reduce traffic congestion in the city center," said Steven Wilson, head of innovation at GCGP.

angus@mail.chinadailyuk.com

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