Beyond the Grave: Failure Narratives and the Global Expansion of China's Dockless Micro-Mobility Systems

Authors: Daniel Romm*, McGill University, Alana Boland, University of Toronto
Topics: Transportation Geography, Urban Geography, Political Geography
Keywords: micro-mobility, bike-sharing, dockless mobility, policy mobilities, policy failure, china
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/8/2021
Start / End Time: 11:10 AM / 12:25 PM
Room: Virtual 18
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In 2014, the modern generation of dockless micro-mobility systems (DMMS) was incepted in China. In dockless systems, users can unlock and lock micro-mobility vehicles, such as bicycles and scooters, at any location using their smart devices. Chinese DMMS firms entered global markets in 2017, eventually spawning endogenous DMMS industries outside of China. Much of the discourse around the introduction of dockless bike-sharing and scooter-sharing systems to North America and Europe concerned itself with 'failure' – of the dockless concept and of Chinese firms. We use data from semi-structured interviews of key persons involved in North American DMMS, media articles, policy documents, and gray literature to investigate the failure discourse through a policy mobilities lens. We find that as Chinese DMMS firms expanded globally and diffused the dockless mobility concept, the framing around DMMS and Chinese firms in particular became one of ‘failure’. Moreover, in the discourse around DMMS we identify prevailing China narratives which focus attention on the purportedly ‘Chinese’ characteristics of DMMS rather than the generalized factors that have created challenges for their adoption. Despite the failure framing and the withdrawal of Chinese DMMS firms from many global implementations, we identify material and institutional linkages that remain between the Chinese DMMS industry and its endogenous global counterparts. We situate the case of DMMS' global entrance in the emergent policy failures literature, positing a useful distinction between 'discursive' failure – when a case circulates as a negative example – and 'material' failure – when policy or project objectives are unmet.

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