China: Explaining Ride-Hailing’s Rapid Rise

Shared Mobility in Practice

How ride-hailing has gone from nonexistence to a mammoth industry in the space of a few years in the People’s Republic of China

By Emma Latham-Jones and Will Duncan

Along the Champs-Élysées of Shanghai, Huaihai Road, a woman is hovering on the pavement’s edge with her smartphone in hand, as she glances from her screen to the road and back again. Suddenly an anonymous car pulls up. A name is shouted out from the driver’s seat, which is received with a nod and a smile. The passenger seat door opens and closes again, and the car seamlessly continues on its journey.

Only a decade ago, no one had heard of app-based ride services. Today, ride-hailing is valued at USD 61.3 billion globally. By 2025, that number is expected to almost quadruple. So what’s causing this explosive growth in shared mobility?

The place to start looking for an answer is the giant of Asia, China. A stunning 62% of Chinese regularly hail a ride with their smartphone, according to a recent survey by Bain & Co (PDF). China’s operator DiDi alone carried out 10 billion rides with 550 million users in 2018.

No surprise, then, that the People’s Republic is the world’s largest ride-hailing market. Valued at USD 23 billion, its market is bigger than those of the rest of the world combined. America’s Uber counted a comparatively modest 95 million users worldwide in 2018 and is valued at just over USD 40 billion – DiDi’s global operations are now worth roughly USD 58 billion.

So what is it about China that makes it such fertile ground for app-based ride-hailing?

Firstly, Chinese city dwellers are rapidly changing their attitude to cars. Once thought of as a status symbol, less than half of China’s urban residents now see owning a car as a form of social progress, according to the Bain & Co survey.

China still has comparatively few cars. Only 118 cars per 1 000 inhabitants were registered in 2016. With car penetration in China at roughly 12%, compared to 74% in North America, or 53% in Europe, China has not developed the same culture of private car ownership as in the West.

The taxi features more heavily in the transport systems of big Chinese cities than in most Western agglomerations, making empty passenger seats less common. Car occupancy is significantly higher in China than in Europe: On average, 2.3 Chinese share a car ride, while the figure is only 1.6 in Europe (and as low as 1.2 passengers in some Western cities).

“China already had a culture of carpooling. With higher than average occupancy rates and lower vehicle ownership, Chinese users are more open to ride-hailing services or car sharing,” explains Jari Kauppila, Head of Quantitative Policy Analysis and Foresight at the International Transport Forum.

Incomes in China have risen steadily over the past decades. The emerging middle class is adaptable and very open to new services and products – which helped ride-hailing to quickly become mainstream.

The wild popularity of app-based payments also helped. WeChat Pay, a service offered by China’s internet giant Tencent is used by a striking 900 million people each month – a different league from Apple Pay’s 127 million users worldwide. Growth in e-hailing is, therefore, part of a broader trend across China’s cities.

A third factor is the cost of a private car in China. From taxes and insurance to parking fees, owning a car in China has become increasingly expensive, putting off many of China’s urban residents from buying their own vehicle.

Critically, the authorities have put a cap on the number of new cars that can hit the streets of Shanghai, Beijing and other cities. To own a car, you need a license. These are allocated via auctions, putting a heavy price tag even on the right to ownership.

“Car ownership in many Chinese cities is very restrictive”, explains Wei-Shiuen Ng, Advisor for Sustainable Transport and Global Outreach at the International Transport Forum.

“The price and quota associated with getting a license to own a car have quite significantly reduced vehicle growth and congestion levels, especially in the short term.”

Nevertheless, ten Chinese cities make the list of the 25 most congested cities in the world, according to the 2017 TomTom Traffic Index. Many Chinese urbanites can think of better ways to spend time than waste it in traffic jams. Hence the car is rarely their first choice for running errands and commuting to work. Instead, they order a car when conditions make that a good choice and let someone else do the actual driving, look after maintenance and bear the fixed costs.

A further element is the changing landscape for investments. China’s mobility market is strikingly dynamic. It’s full to the brim of eager-eyed competitors looking to experiment with new ride-hailing ventures: from delivery app, Meituan Dianping, and mapping service, Gaode, to traditional carmakers, such as GAC. During the three years from 2014 to 2017, this market was powered by an astounding USD 50 billion in investments. It didn’t take long for DiDi, China’s biggest ride-hailing company, to raise staggering amounts of money: indeed, in just six years DiDi has managed to raise a total of USD 20.6 billion in funding over 17 rounds.

Everyone wants a piece of the pie. Manufacturers in particular are looking to find new revenue models as car sales decline. They are setting their sights on the emerging high-end ride-hailing market, which is not yet as crowded as mainstream ride-hailing. In December 2017, BMW launched its ReachNow service in Chengdu showing that it is ready to take on the Premium ride-hailing service segment.

But European car manufacturers have Shenzhou, Shouqi, and DiDi Premium to compete with. Western companies battling it out in China’s tier-one cities somewhat resembles the Uber versus DiDi struggle of 2016, which ended in DiDi acquiring Uber China in August 2016 in a USD 35 billion deal.

“Part of DiDi’s success was that it was so familiar with the domestic market, the culture and local consumer preferences,” explains Wei-Shiuen Ng.

This article is part two of a series on Shared Mobility in Practice, which looks at how cities around the world are incorporating innovative transport solutions in real life, today. Part one examines how L.A. is harnessing data for transport innovation. Shared mobility is one of the central transport disruptions explored in the 2019 ITF Transport Outlook. It is also one of the ITF’s key research areas. More information on the ITF’s work on this subject can be found here: www.itf-oecd.org/itf-work-shared-mobility

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