In Japan’s fledgling bike-sharing scene, the race for market share heats up


Bike-sharing is shifting into higher gear in Japan as a string of new players and leading Chinese services announce their entry into a nascent but growing domestic market.

Popular flea-market application operator Mercari Inc. on Thursday announced its plans to enter the bike-sharing business in 2018, while a bicycle industry event held in Tokyo on Friday saw a Japanese electronics maker announce the launch of a smartphone-enabled bike-sharing service aiming to dispatch 100,000 bicycles in three years.

“We want to transform the perception of bicycles from being something you buy to something you borrow,” said Kaito Kotake, president of Ocean Blue Smart, a bike-sharing startup established by electronics maker Kaihou Japan, which sells electric bicycles and portable car navigation systems. Kotake was speaking at Bicycle City Expo 2017, a two-day event where over 60 bicycle makers, bike-sharing startups, bicycle parking system providers and other related firms gathered.

In Thursday’s announcement, Mercari said it will be jumping on the bike-sharing bandwagon with the launch of a service called “Merchari” early next year. Citing how major Chinese bike-sharing services Mobike and Ofo have announced their entry into the Japanese market, Mercari said the sector is growing and that it is in talks with several municipalities and firms about partnerships with an eye to launch its service early next year.

Bike-sharing exploded in China last year, and is rapidly expanding overseas.

Beijing-based Mobike, founded in 2015, now offers services in over 170 cities in seven countries. It set up a subsidiary in the city of Fukuoka in Kyushu this year and began offering services in Sapporo, Hokkaido, last month. A spokeswoman for the company said the service currently has over 100 million users and provides more than 7 million bicycles globally.

Ofo, Mobike’s Chinese rival, announced last month that it will be working with a subsidiary of telecommunications and internet giant SoftBank Group Corp. to bring its service to Japan, starting in Tokyo and Osaka. Founded in 2014, Ofo has expanded to over 170 cities across eight countries and says it generates over 25 million daily transactions.

“In a country where there is a strong cycling culture, we strive to further improve the convenience and cost-effectiveness that cycling can bring to people in Japan,” Lawrence Cao, head of Ofo’s Asia-Pacific business, had said in a statement.

Japanese firms have been experimenting with bike-sharing for several years now, albeit on a much smaller scale compared with their Chinese counterparts.

NTT Docomo Inc., the nation’s largest mobile carrier, has worked with municipalities to offer bike-sharing on an experimental basis. The number of transactions increased to 2.2 million in 2016 from 40,000 in 2011, it said.

Docomo is partnering with several wards in Tokyo and with other cities in the nation. It currently has around 5,500 GPS-equipped two-wheelers available at 468 stations, charging ¥150 for the first 30 minutes and ¥100 for every 30 minutes thereafter.

China has seen a boom in app-driven, stationless bike-share networks — where users can drop off their bikes anywhere they want and the next user can find it via GPS. However, similar services operating in Japan need to provide docking stations due to parking regulations.

Kazuyuki Koizumi, head of Kaihou Japan’s sales division, said he expects competition for parking space to intensify as more players enter the market, especially in crowded cities like Tokyo.

“I think the market here will get bigger, but that also means parking space will grow scarcer,” he said.

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