Bringing vehicle sharing to China

by Dr Dennis Zuev (Research Associate, Lancaster University) & Dr David Tyfield (Reader, Lancaster University)

Car-sharing is the fastest growing urban mobility innovation worldwide but is yet to take off in Chinese cities. According to a recent Roland Berger report, the Chinese car sharing market is still developing, but it has very high potential. It is expected to grow around 80% per year until 2018.

There are still very few car-leasing agencies across China, with perhaps the largest one being eHi in Shanghai – let alone car-sharing schemes.  But local initiatives have emerged in Hangzhou, where first EVnet and then Kandi Technologies started ICE and EV car-sharing services. Peer-to-peer car-pooling initiatives, such as ATzuche, have also emerged in bottom-up ventures.

Chinese authorities, however, now seem to want to maintain more control of these initiatives and the diversification of transport sharing schemes. In this context, as with Tesla and BMW regarding the electric vehicle, it is these foreign ventures that appear to be attracting the most press attention.

So what are the prospects for different kinds of car-sharing schemes in China?

Understanding the ‘cultural’ hurdle: growth prospects for car-sharing in China

On 21st of September 2014, a new car-sharing system called GX-ZUCHE was launched in Yantai, Shandong province as a part of very active ongoing Sino-German cooperation in sustainable transport.  In a parallel move, in November Daimler also announced that it intends to expand its car-sharing platform Car2Go to China, aiming to ‘expand the service’s global coverage by more than 70% to 50 cities by the end of 2016’.

Such developments appear not just promising but also timely, coinciding with growing evidence of a shift in urban mobility policy (at least at the highest levels) towards liveable urbanism and ‘transit-oriented development’: most obviously in the New Urbanization Plan directive announced in March 2014.  The first of its kind in China, this also stresses a people-centred transport plan for the next six sharing space

Within this welcome shift in vision, car-sharing arguably will play a crucial role.  Yet there is simply not enough space for that many cars in China’s already congested megacities.  Moreover, China’s continuing commitment to the EV raises further imperatives for car-sharing: as Germany’s institute for international research collaboration (GIZ) argues persuasively, car-sharing does not need the EV, but the EV needs car-sharing.

Cultural misgivings

But are these car-sharing ventures likely to be successful?  The first issue such a question raises is often whether or not Chinese people are really willing and ready to share vehicles?  According to GIZ experts in Beijing, Chinese people are getting more interested in mobility solutions rather than car ownership.  Yet the cultural misgivings about sharing cars remain the default common-sense, even amongst Chinese car-sharing entrepreneurs (whom we have interviewed in 2014 in our ESRC-funded UK-China project on ‘Low Carbon Innovation in China – Prospects, Politics and Practice; for more Chinadialogue stories from this project, please see related articles in the project’s media listing here).

Cars in China today have become amongst the most important of cultural artefacts, as little enclosures for privacy, individualization, expressions of autonomy and personal status.  On the other hand, the legacy of the experience of Maoism and communal facilities has indelibly tarnished the idea of ‘sharing’ in comparison to private ownership, especially for the older (car-buying) generations.

Chongqing, ChinaFurther evidence regarding this cultural hurdle is provided by existing efforts at vehicle sharing, namely of bicycles.  Growing the presence of the bicycle is another crucial aspect of ‘transit-oriented development’. Getting its citizens back into bike-saddles may sound unthinkable, but it may be an urgent measure to “declog” Chinese cities.  Through the reform period, urban experts warned Chinese urban planners not to remove the bike lanes for more roads.  But in order to de-congest the roads, more roads were nonetheless built at expense of the bicycle space.

The result was an immense “de-bikification”, with numbers plummeting.  Most importantly, however, this also created a common-sense understanding of the bicycle as associated with backwardness and a lack of ‘quality’ (‘suzhi’).

First attempts: bicycle sharing

Ironically, however, it has been the unpromising conjunction of ‘passé’ sharing and ‘backward’ bicycles that have been the first (government-supported) initiatives in China of vehicle sharing.  This is, no doubt, partly because of (local) governments taking seriously their responsibility of introducing sustainable transport options that are genuinely ‘public services’, and so cater to the needs, and budgets, of as large a slice of the public as possible.

Nevertheless, one of the first bike-sharing schemes, in Hangzhou, hailed as one of the biggest in the world, has been very successful. Experts at Zhejiang University note that it could have been better if it worked with credit cards as in Europe and sometimes demand cannot keep up with supply in certain busy places of the city.  Nonetheless, it remains popular and solvent, if not really challenging the car as the option of choice.Bike sharing

But not all bike-sharing schemes have been successful.  Another high-profile and massive bike-sharing scheme in Wuhan has gone bust. Reasons for this failure included poor maintenance, which in turn has been associated with the governance model: the bikes were collectively-owned, not owned by the private company in charge.  As one expert from Tongji University mentioned in an interview, “there is no love” in Chinese sharing services, with collectively owned goods not well looked-after and dusty.

Confounding ‘common sense’

The example of bike-sharing thus raises important lessons for car-sharing, but as regards both its failures and successes, and regarding its similarities and its differences.  In particular, the experiences of the bike-sharing schemes highlight how the cultural barriers to sharing cars are actually indicative of a broader constellation of concepts in current ‘common-sense’ that pit the ‘individually owned’, ‘hi-tech’, ‘car’, ‘private sector provided’ and ‘foreign’ (particularly German, as regards the car) against the ‘collective’ or ‘publicly owned’, ‘low-tech’, ‘bicycle’, ‘publicly provided’ and ‘domestic’ respectively.  Moreover, the former set is overwhelmingly associated with ‘progress’ and ‘high quality’ , whether in terms of the good/service in question or the (display of) social status of the user (suzhi), while the latter set is connected to the ‘past’ and ‘poor quality’ in both respects.

In these circumstances, the challenges of engineering a successful shift to vehicle-sharing clearly depends on unsettling these dualisms.  Moreover, this is specifically the case for car-sharing over and above the challenges of bike-sharing, in that the former must successfully pair key terms on both sides of these dualisms (‘car’, ‘high quality’ and ‘sharing’), while the latter may prove to be a successful initiative as a public service without any such mixing of common-senses; as where a public-service bike-sharing scheme succeeds precisely by catering to those who are not on the ‘car’ side of the ledger.

Yet, from the socio-technical systems perspective we have introduced previously, this is not simply a matter of changing the collective imagination.  Rather these conceptual constellations must be re-institutionalized, embedded in new materially-based power relations and everyday practices.  In particular, this perspective thus connects these ‘cultural barriers’ to two other crucial, but seemingly more ‘structural’ and intransigent, elements, namely entrepreneur-state relations and a prevailing fetishism of ‘Western’ high technology.

What is key from this perspective, then, is that acknowledging the cultural barriers to car-sharing is just the tip of the iceberg.  Transforming them is likely to involve some significant social change.  And this in turn, by highlighting the complex and multi-factorial systemic process of innovation, also significantly problematizes what is meant by – what can and does count as – ‘success’ or ‘failure’.  In other words, the pertinent question emerges as ‘Could car-sharing be the ‘vehicle’ for deeper transformations of Chinese society supportive of more profound low-carbon innovation and system transition? In part 2 of this article, we explore precisely these questions.

Car-sharing, the State and the ‘West’

Car-sharing is coming to China, and through both home-grown and foreign initiatives.  But apparently building on their success in the car-capitals of the world, especially Germany, it is the latter that are beginning to generate significant buzz in China about this mobility innovation. Still, as discussed in part 1, there remain significant, and deeply entrenched, cultural challenges to the sharing of cars in China.  These take the form of strong connected sets of conceptual associations that have encrusted into a clear dualism between high and low quality, high- and low-tech, car and bicycle, individually-owned and shared, and privately and publicly provided.

Unsettling these correlated dualisms, however, demands tackling potentially two of the most challenging aspects of contemporary Chinese political economy and societal expectations, namely the relations between entrepreneurs and the state, and the deep-seated framing of ‘development’ in terms of ‘catch-up’ with an (at least technologically) ‘advanced’ West.  Of course, these issues, in turn, are not unrelated.  And both come together in these new Sino-German car-sharing initiatives.

‘Private = good, public = bad… Or is it the other way round?’

Regarding the former, existing evidence from bike-sharing is again informative.  For the differences in the state-private initiative relations between the Hangzhou and Wuhan programmes are highly instructive as regards their success or failure.  In fact, it is the strong public management in the Hangzhou case that has kept it a success, while the division of responsibilities between government and the private company in Wuhan left crucial issues to fall between the two stools.  In particular, the bikes in the latter programme were not managed by the private company but were ‘collectively’ owned, meaning de facto they were not maintained at all.

As such, ironically, read through the conceptual ‘common sense’ grid above, the Wuhan failure can also be understood to confirm the inferiority of public to private management.  Had the bikes been privately managed, it is argued, then they would never have been so poorly maintained.  Conversely, through the same lens, Hangzhou’s success simply confirms the bicycle as a ‘public good’ to be provided by government for the ‘common masses’.  What this success does not (or at least, need not) achieve, therefore, is the unsettling of the equation bike = sharing = public management = inferior.  Nor, therefore, does it do much to challenge the negative associations with sharing vehicles more generally on which car-sharing (but also a genuinely system-transformative bike-sharing scheme) would depend.

Moreover, what both stories apparently corroborate is a further ‘common-sense’ that in contemporary China, state involvement is strongly needed to make innovations work – both because of prevailing political economic relations and, perhaps in this case of sharing especially, also because of ‘market failure’ associated with provision of ‘public goods’.  Yet the very involvement of the state both shapes the resulting initiative towards ‘collective’ priorities and, insofar as it is a ‘success’, simply confirms that initiative as, at best, a second-best option to the privately-owned and more expensive solution; again bike-sharing as public service vs. private cars.

When translated to car-sharing, however, the complications mount. For Chinese car-sharing and electric-mobility entrepreneurs are increasingly aware that they must seek to associate their product and/or service with ‘high class’, ‘modern’ urban living.  This, in turn, brings with it the expectation of entrepreneurial ‘private sector’ provision and a rhetoric from these quarters of needing to unleash market forces from the dead-hand of the state for real innovation to occur.

Yet these Chinese entrepreneurs are also, of course, savvy in their recognition of the political economic status quo. Hence, for instance, they argue that government, and specifically State Grid of China, the major electricity provider in PRC, is not taking sufficiently rapid steps in establishing the infrastructure needed for EV-car-sharing.  In short, Chinese mobility entrepreneurs are ready to be bold risk-bearing entrepreneurial manifestations of the free market and to invest in car-sharing… as long as they feel support from the state in the form of a strong and special relationship.

New State-Entrepreneur relations?

This may, to a Western eye, seem superficially similar to Mariana Mazzucato’s arguments regarding private sector pussycats and public sector lions.  Yet, this does not do justice to the genuine challenges facing Chinese entrepreneurs from the completely different political economic context.  This reading also misses a crucial irony: that in the context of the institutionalized common-sense dualisms above, it is arguably the (publicly visible) involvement of the state in such ventures that is most likely to confirm consumer expectations that associate car-sharing with poor quality, publicly-provided services.  In other words, significant state involvement seems both necessary and toxic for a cultural shift to normalization of high-quality car-sharing.

To be more than a marginal experiment in China, therefore, car-sharing thus seems to need a new relation with the state – neither seeking to deny its undeniable importance (as in crude free market rhetoric), nor just to take its necessary involvement for granted.  In this respect, however, it may be the very cultural ignorance of initiatives from overseas that makes them more promising; just as Tesla is apparently achieving market success by riding roughshod over the orthodoxies of how to sell cars (let alone EVs) in China.  While, conversely, dealing with successful overseas companies (and especially smaller ones) poses significantly lower political risks to the State, which is not thereby creating and empowering new poles of domestic political leverage.  And, indeed, the case of the new car-sharing system in Yantai demonstrates that the State may be searching for powerful actors from outside of China to develop the concept of the car as a public good.

What is crucial about the potential of such initiatives, however, is that it has nothing to do with a crude analysis in terms of China ‘finally’ opening its doors to the more hi-tech and advanced companies from overseas.  For what is promising about these initiatives is not specifically their supposedly greater techno-economic prowess than Chinese competitors. Nor is it their ‘example’ of what ‘real’ innovation looks like, i.e. entirely separate from the State.  Indeed, to the extent these foreign initiatives attempt to go entirely without connections with the State they can be expected to dwindle and fade.

Rather, how they matter is primarily in their potential to disrupt the political economic relations underpinning innovation in China, forging new state-entrepreneur relations that could in turn then come to benefit Chinese entrepreneurs just as much, if not more so.  This could include the comparative empowerment of different groups within and constitutive of the (multi-layered, fragmented) Chinese state apparatus.

Using the dualisms against themselves?

This leads to the second significant structural challenge for making car-sharing ‘normal’, namely the deep-seated discourse of technological ‘catch-up’. In fact, this may perhaps be used to support the emergence of car-sharing.  Where once American cities and its car industry was the model, Chinese sustainable urban transportation developers increasingly look at Europe as an example.  For it is in the very heartlands of the most prestigious car industry in China, namely Germany’s, that car-sharing appears to be doing so well.  Moreover, this is true also of bike-sharing schemes, whether regards their convenience in Vienna or Paris or more technologically advanced bike-sharing in Copenhagen, that has recently launched e-bike sharing featuring a stylish tablet that makes navigation and indeed sightseeing more fun.

As a distinctively ‘Western’ and fashionable model of urban mobility, car-(and indeed, (e-)bike-) sharing thus perhaps may be able to find its dedicated customers; just as Starbucks has managed to sell products locals never liked, but have an appeal as a fashionable Western trend or good.  Indeed, even Chinese ventures are successfully aligning their marketing strategies in this way.  For instance, one of the car-sharing schemes in Hangzhou launched by Kandi technologies has been immensely popular to the degree that it has become a tourist attraction in itself.

The need and opportunities for cultural ownership

But there is also a significant danger in this misappropriation of the ‘West’, however effective it may be in creating some buzz around car-sharing.  For bringing a new cachet to car-sharing in this way risks deepening common cultural expectations that car-sharing is ‘foreign’ not ‘Chinese’; hence also provided by (foreign) private not (Chinese) state enterprises; and is led by foreign not Chinese innovation.  In other words, car-sharing may ‘succeed’ on some criteria but at the cost of its comparative systemic irrelevance.

While car-sharing may take hold in this case as a niche, like coffee it would not thereby become ubiquitous and ‘normal’, the basis of a broader system transition.  But this would be, at best, a missed opportunity for expedited urban mobility transition and for China.

This approach would impart new life to existing common-senses that China must learn from the West, albeit with a shift of exemplar from ultra-high-carbon US mobility to lower-carbon Western Europe.  But the latter is arguably also an inappropriate imported urban model for Chinese urbanization, China’s cities facing significantly different challenges in size, climate, culture and scale of ongoing construction and development. Chongqing is not Copenhagen, nor could it possibly be.  Nor is it obvious that ‘Copenhagenizing’ Chongqing is, while definitely a step in the right direction, anywhere near enough.  Again, this is indicative of the dangers of thinking in terms of binary ‘success’/’failure’. The ‘success stories’ from Europe may be better than other existing examples, but they are certainly not paradigms that have already achieved ‘low-carbon’ mobility or blue-prints to be followed.

In both cases, and worst of all, however, this spells an unnecessarily slow and shallow system transition through an endogenous disabling of Chinese innovation, in terms of common-senses both of consumers and even car-sharing entrepreneurs.  For instance, our interviews have shown how the latter adhere to a discourse of ‘stages’ where people supposedly have to experience the stage of car ownership first before opting for the car as quasi-public transportation.  As such, this discourse accepts what cannot be accepted, namely that there is only one route for China to decarbonize its urban transport, and that is the same one as Los Angeles, only perhaps quicker.  Indeed, from this perspective it is perfectly reasonable to foresee that car-sharing could actually deepen the lock-in of the car system, as an important but still minor niche that relieves the pressure of congestion just enough to allow continued growth along existing trajectories of increasing car ownership.

What is thus notably absent is cultural ‘ownership’, and thence (acknowledgement of) potential leadership, of shared mobility and as part of a broader, more far-reaching systemic reimagining of urban mobility appropriate to a ‘green’ 21st century China.  Yet the challenge of sustainable urban mobility is one that China, like everywhere, faces without precedent or template, and which must be worked out anew and in ways appropriate to that society’s specific profile/characteristics and needs.

In short, the most exciting prospect from car-sharing – an innovation for more sustainable and liveable urban mobility that is urgently needed in China specifically – is that in confronting the cultural challenges to make it a success, more profound changes to the entire systemic context of low-carbon innovation in China could be set in motion.  Perhaps the hardest challenge for China’s car-sharing entrepreneurs, but also their greatest opportunity, is that they must imagine and construct a model that is not merely a Chinese copy of an existing model overseas but that is distinctively non-European (if not positively ‘Chinese’).  For nothing would do more to transform Chinese urban mobility and to unsettle the established cultural associations that confront mass vehicle-sharing than a successful domestic car-sharing venture that in turn generates a confidence in an indigenous and endogenous trajectory of sustainable urbanism.  Perhaps overseas ventures could be the unwitting catalysts for precisely this result.

Photo credit: Image 1: ‘car sharing’ by Andreas Maxbauer. Image 2: Traffic in Chongqing, China by Bettina Zenz / Sussex Energy Group. Image 3: Bike sharing in London by Sussex Energy Group.