About the Author
View more articles by Chad O'Carroll
Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
Authorities are experimenting with a new bicycle sharing scheme in Pyongyang, photos taken in May and shared with NK News show, a development which – if successful – could see North Korea’s capital rival similar schemes recently installed in neighboring Beijing and Seoul.
The emergence of the system, which will allow citizens to rent green-and-yellow bicycles from stations around the city, comes following a rapid growth in private taxi usage since similarly colored vehicles started emerging on Pyongyang streets in late 2013.
“They’re installing (docking stations) at five locations around the city,” Rowan Beard, a tour guide with the Young Pioneer Tours agency, told NK News. “The other four are still being constructed and this is the first completed station… there will be two locations in central district and three available on Kwangbok street.”
“It’s so new it’s getting a lot of focus from the locals, who are standing around it talking about it,” he continued.
The blue-roofed rental station pictured outside Kwangbok Department Store was observable in satellite imagery of the location taken by the San Francisco-based Planet Labs on May 27, but not visible on May 20, suggesting the structure was completed within the last ten days.
It is not clear, however, when the other stations will be completed or the overall cycle-sharing testing period completed.
Cyclists will be required to use a special card system to touch in and out of the docking stations, Beard said, with fees of 40 won per minute and a fixed price of 3,000 won per hour of rental.
At North Korea’s May 29 official exchange rate of 108 KRW per dollar – monitored weekly by NK Pro – such prices would equate to $27.77 per hour, considerably more than the five won tickets citizens must purchase to use the city’s metro system.
Consequently, one long-time North Korea watcher said the fee structure was likely being denominated at city’s unofficial exchange rate.
“Those figures are at the market exchange rate, so it would be about 40 cents USD for an hour,” said Andray Abrahamian, an honorary fellow at Macquarie University.
“It also looks as if they have a manned booth, so perhaps you’d punch in and out with an actual person and show your ID. Otherwise, it could be linked to one of the electronic payment cards they have, so long as it’s one that is linked to an actual ID.”
Abrahamian was uncertain, however, as to how much demand might exist for such a system.
“It’s hard to know, since a huge percentage of commuters in Pyongyang have their own bikes,” he said. “I guess that’s why they’re starting with just a few locations, to test the waters.”
Another long-time North Korea watcher was also skeptical of potential demand. “My instinct is to be rather cynical about this,” said Christopher Green, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Leiden.
“Much like the bike lanes that appeared patchily in Pyongyang a couple of years ago, it seems like a classic case of someone looking abroad and seeing other countries having street-side bike rental schemes — London and other “Western” cities, but more importantly also Seoul and many other places all across Asia.”
Green further questioned the role such a system could serve in a city like Pyongyang, where most people use bicycles “for very practical purposes,” meaning “a bike rental scheme like this is mostly useful to casual local users and tourists”.
But Beard, the tour guide, said he feels “the new bicycle rental system is brilliant,” pointing out that “it already works in cities around the world.”
“Adding this to Pyongyang will make it more convenient for students and the adults to get their way around town,” he said.
The arrival of the bike stations follows a notable surge in the usage of electronic bicycles around the country in the past year, as well as the installation of a dedicated bicycle lane system since 2015.
Featured image: NK News
Additional reporting: JH Ahn