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How The Convenience Economy Has Led To Clutter In Urban China

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In China's biggest cities, the country's new convenience economy has become inconvenient for pedestrians. Shared bicycles and mobile apps that promise quick food delivery mean sidewalks cluttered with bikes and speeding drivers and electric scooters. NPR's Rob Schmitz reports from the sidewalks of Shanghai.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Noon, downtown Shanghai, a city of 24 million people on lunch break. And if they're walking along a sidewalk like I am, they're playing a game of chicken with speeding, silent electric scooters driven by uniformed men rushing to deliver lunch. They prefer sidewalks because police will ticket them if they're on many of the highly trafficked downtown roads.

Here's another delivery man coming right at me here in his scooter, asking people to move out of the way on a public sidewalk. And here comes another one plowing right through people.

In the past few years, mobile apps that promise quick delivery times have become popular in cities like Shanghai. It's turned many sidewalks here into roads, roads for drivers like Mr. Qu, who I stop by refusing to move out of his way as he's speeding through pedestrians. He drives for MissFresh, an app that promises quick delivery of fresh fruit and vegetables. My question - why are you driving on the sidewalk? - elicits an eye roll.

MR QU: (Through interpreter) There's no lane for scooters on this road, so I have to. I'm a delivery man. I need to deliver these items on time or I'll be punished.

SCHMITZ: Qu says his boss will take $30 out of his paycheck for each delivery that doesn't make it on time. And with that, he speeds off into other pedestrians, who have a hard time moving out of the way because of row upon row of shared bicycles cluttering the walkway. That's been another problem this year - China's shared bike revolution, bikes that you can unlock with mobile apps, ride them and then leave them wherever you want, like in the middle of a sidewalk, piled atop other shared bikes. That's what Tang Xian is sifting through. The city pays him $500 a month to make order out of the city's shared bike chaos.

TANG XIAN: (Through interpreter) It's a serious problem. There's no place for bikes, and there's just too many of them. There's nothing we can do. If I don't keep an eye on them, bikes will be all over the roads.

SCHMITZ: That's what's happened a block away. An entire sidewalk is cut off to pedestrians because it's filled with shared bicycles. That leaves people like local resident Shao having to walk on the road while cars whiz past. Sidewalks, he reminds me in Chinese, are called renxingdao - literally people walkway.

SHAO: (Through interpreter) What does that mean? It's for people to walk on. But now they're full of bikes. Look. You can't even walk on the sidewalk. They're stealing public resources.

SCHMITZ: Shanghai's Public Security Bureau acknowledged to NPR that both shared bikes and speeding delivery men were big problems and they were exploring solutions.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Speaking Chinese).

SCHMITZ: Solutions that couldn't come sooner for these six grannies basking in the afternoon sun on their stools, complaining about the scourge of shared bikes and delivery men on their fair city. One who only gives her surname, Li, says it's clear who's responsible for keeping the sidewalks clear.

LI: (Through interpreter) The bike companies should pay for it. They're the ones making all the money. The government can't be in charge of everything. (Speaking Chinese).

SCHMITZ: She motions to two shared banks that somebody just parked in the middle of the street in front of her and makes a sour face until I remind her that this part of the sidewalk is already occupied by her and her five friends. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Shanghai.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEV BROWN'S "LOOK (INSTRUMENTAL)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.

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