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Japan’s colourful bikesharing scene: From the capital to regional towns

Japan has long had a love-and-hate relationship with bicycles. While bicycles is a huge part of everyday life, accounting for 13% of all trips in the country, illegal dumping or parking of bicycles is also rampant.

In 2014 for example, 200 illegally dumped items including bicycles were uncovered from the bottom of a pond in suburban Tokyo.

Recently though, in the name of the Sharing Economy, bicycles of vibrant colours, all shapes and sizes have arrived and coloured Japan’s bikesharing scene.

(The above map should give a rough idea of where these bikes can be found – colour-coded by the company’s corporate colour where possible.) *Update in May 2019: This map, created with the Leaftlet plugin in WP, no longer function in the updated version of this blog.

Team Red: Docomo bikes in Metropolitan Tokyo and around Japan

Little red electric bikes are an increasingly common sight around Tokyo. They are run by Docomo Bikeshare, a subsidiary of NTT Docomo Inc., Japan’s largest telecom operator. Fees start at 150 yen for the first 30 minutes, with options for a monthly or daily pass. Docks are typically seen around train stations or within the grounds of tall buildings.

Although Docomo Bikeshare is also present in other regions around the country such as Yokohama (part of the Tokyo Metropolis, just south of Tokyo), cross-region use is currently unsupported and users need to register for another account if they wish to borrow bikes in a different city.

Despite these operational particularities and questions of profitability (pretty much like every other bikesharing service around the world), these Docomo bikes are gaining traction in central Tokyo – where slopes can be steep and the idea of an electric boost very much welcome. Usage have reportedly surged from 40,000 times in 2011 to 2.2 million in 2016. Its electric bikes are also a differentiating factor, allowing Docomo to cater to tourists in hilly regions or remote islands around the country.

Team Green and Team Red No. 2: Suicle and Merchari in suburban Tokyo

Suicle is a less well-known bikesharing service in the Western suburbs clearly designed as a first- and last-mile solution.With support from the East Japan Railway Company (JR East), users can use Suica (JR’s preferred smart card) to rent bikes. Docks are also stationed along the railway lines in neighbourhoods of higher reliance on city buses like Kunitachi and Musashi-sakai.

Merchari, a bikesharing service launched by one of Japan’s unicorn start-up Mercari (the name being a wordplay as chari means “bicycle” in Japanese), is a new entrant. While previously conceptualised as a peer-to-peer bikesharing service, its latest developments indicate that it is providing dedicated bikes (i.e. just like everyone else). Merchari is currently conducting trials in Kunitachi City in suburban Tokyo and Fukuoka City in the Kyushu Region.

Team Yellow and Team Orange: Ofo and Mobike in regional cities

How about the Chinese bikesharing companies that have entered and subsequently exited many international markets, you ask? Ofo and Mobike have respectively partnered with SoftBank C&S and LINE to help with their foray into the Japanese market.

Interestingly, both companies are staying off from the capital. Ofo is currently available in Otsu, Wakayama and Kitakyushu cities in the Kansai and Kyushu region, all at a population of 300,000 to a million. Mobike, on the other hand, is present in sizeable regional hubs with millions of inhabitants like Fukuoka and Sapporo, as well as significantly smaller towns like Oiso in Kanagawa Prefecture (population of 30,000).

Further reading

[Pedal power: Bike-sharing services expand in Japan] (https://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2017/10/21/lifestyle/pedal-power-bike-sharing-services-expand-in-japan/)

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