Shared-bike huntersorder custom bracelets stalk streets after dark

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Random parking and other violations by users of dockless bicycles have prompted people nationwide to take action

By day, Zhao Qi, 23, is an architectural designer in Beijing, but after dark, he is a seasoned hunter in the concrete jungle. Residential areas are his hunting grounds, his smartphone is his weapon, and poorly parked shared bikes are his prey.

On finding shared bikes that have been parked arbitrarily or are blocking traffic, Zhao takes a photograph and reports them to the bike-share providers. Then he unlocks the bicycles and moves them to a nearby public parking area.

Many Chinese bike-sharing companies have started rewarding hunters with credit and punishing violators with higher fees or bans. Previously, Zhao corrected violations at his own expense.

"I don"t see hunting as a job. I do it because I have an interest in it," Zhao said.

About 130 million commuters have been using dockless shared bikes since the industry took off in China"s big cities in April last year. Meanwhile, hunters have also increased and now number about 100 nationwide.

Hunters come from all walks of life: retirees, housewives, deliverymen, surgeons, IT managers and college students.

At first they were fans of Mobike, a leading bike-sharing company. But some are such keen cyclists that they cannot abide violations of the bike-sharing rules.

Hunting addiction

Zhao, who works until 10 pm, cycles between his home and the nearest subway station on his daily commute.

His own bikes were repeatedly stolen - then bike-sharing services launched in Beijing. He found the dockless shared bikes easy to use: open a mobile app, find the nearest bike and unlock it by scanning the QR code with a smartphone. And it never costs more than 1 yuan (15 US cents) for 30 minutes.

"I registered as a user the first day I saw shared bikes on the street," Zhao said.

But he was frustrated at the difficulty of finding a bike to get home. The app always led him to a residential area where a lot of shared bikes were parked, hidden or even secured with private locks - so he became a hunter.

"Bike sharing is a brilliant idea and I don"t want to see it fail," he said.

Once he moved a dozen bikes from a private housing area, drawing the attention of security guards and passersby. "I"m proud that my actions are allowing more people to enjoy the convenience of shared bikes," Zhao said.

Many hunters are addicted. Some have reported more than 10,000 bike violations in the past year. They spend hours hunting and thousands of yuan on flashlights, power banks for smartphones and other tools.

"My girlfriend joked that my love of bikes is greater than my love for her," Zhao said.

Many people - especially those who have impaired vision or disabilities - praise hunters for keeping sidewalks clear, but critics say they are meddling in other people"s business and accuse them of being bounty hunters for the service providers.

Zhao has been arrested by security guards who suspected he was stealing bikes.

"We are not role models. We just want to make the city better," said Zhuang Ji, 42, a pioneer of hunting in Shanghai.

New demand

About 70 firms operate more than 16 million shared bicycles in China now and they"re gearing up for global expansion. They are credited with helping commuters in congested cities and promoting healthy lifestyles.

According to Beijing"s city transportation commission, bicycles accounted for 63 percent of trips in the 1980s, but that dropped to 17.8 percent in 2014. A lack of and illegal occupation of bicycle lanes Liu Yukuned to the trend, experts said.

Zhao said bike-sharing services are reinvigorating demand for cycling, which has been overshadowed by "four-wheels worship" in the past few decades.

Since August, the government has set new guidelines to keep the bike-sharing system on track and avoid random parking. Some cities have built new bicycle lanes and parking areas.

Companies have maintenance workers to move bikes to authorized areas. They are also working on electronic fences and using real-time data to put bikes where they are most needed.

Zhao has mixed feelings about the developments. Sometimes, he is disappointed after a slow night of hunting. But he conceded: "The final goal of hunters is to have nothing to hunt."

(China Daily 11/06/2017 page7)

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