I use the term Struggle for Existence in a large and metaphorical sense, including dependence of one being on another ...  – Charles Darwin

SHANGHAI. Dear Charles (if I may), I hope you don’t mind my approaching you without our having been formally introduced. Inspired by your great work “On the Origin of Species” I wanted to share with you some observations of natural selection in Shanghai.  

About two years ago, a flash of bright yellow amid the green trees of the former French Concession alerted me to a previously unknown species of bicycle. Not just unknown, but unowned — at least by its riders.  

This new yellow species seemed to thrive in a symbiotic relationship with several other  species: the mobile phone with global positioning system, and new specimens of Chinese humans with thumbs especially suited to type on those phones.

I watched in fascination as Chinese humans would approach the yellow bike with its automatic lock, tap on their mobile phones for a few seconds, then the automatic lock on the back wheel would snap open, and then away those three species would ride together — bike and human and phone.  

Later, having arrived at the desired subway stop or apartment block, the Chinese human would jump off the bike and tap the phone once more, then the lock would snap shut, and phone and human would hurry away, leaving the bike unattended at that random spot. Later, I watched other Chinese humans with phones approach the same bike, examine it quickly, repeat the tapping and unlocking process, and ride off.

The Shanghai environment, with its flat roads and mild winters, and large and adaptive human population, was particularly conducive to the rapid multiplication of this new species. 

I have reviewed my notebooks and sketches, and I see that the first yellow bikes were crudely made, and very heavy. You could hardly lift them, and they had solid tires and their seats were bolted at one low height, and they had no baskets. Their distinctive markings included the name “Ofo” and signs that humans could interpret to mean that each ride cost one yuan (about 14 cents), or about a third the cost of a ride on the metro.  

How quickly, though, other competitive species arose! Soon a bright orange species of bike appeared, with the distinctive marking “MoBike.” It had adjustable seats and lighter pneumatic tires, and its markings signaled a price per ride only one tenth of the price of the Ofo. Humans and their phones preferred the cheaper bikes.  

These two species, yellow and orange, soon had to jostle for parking positions with a third new species with deep green coloration, powered by an electric battery and capable of much faster speeds without the need for human pedaling.

Then the Ofo bike evolved again, appearing with an adjustable seat and a front basket. Then only weeks later, an even newer subspecies of Ofo appeared, with a flat black solar panel on the bottom of the basket, to power new safety lights for night traffic.

Unfortunately — and you know well that nature can be heartless — a nocturnal, invasive parasite seemed to arise out of nowhere, to cause sticky paper advertising flyers for real estate and restaurants to be plastered on these flat black solar panels. This rendered the solar panels useless, and starved the bikes of power for their nightlights. Soon this particular subspecies with its solar panels simply died out.

Meanwhile, in the related jungle of private equity finance, the companies that supported these bikes raised hundreds of millions, and the companies solicited millions in deposits from the Chinese humans who used their services. But the ecology of the city also changed as the number of these bikes multiplied into the hundreds of thousands. Piles of broken bikes were left all over the city, and the human government of the city began — belatedly, as governments do — to respond.  

First we observed city workers painting fresh rectangles of white lines on sidewalks to try to corral the bikes into orderly files. Then official signs appeared that prohibited riders from leaving bikes near subway entrances or apartment courtyards. Finally, the governments in some cities strictly prohibited any further increase in mobile-bike numbers.

Just this last week, I saw a report on mobile bikes in Shanghai in that well-known journal of (human) nature The New York Times. It seems that the Ofo species may be dying out, and great piles of broken and unused bikes are found by the roadside. The company may soon become extinct.  

I suppose you might consider the endangered Yellow Ofo to be a victim of the creative destruction that is driven by the forces implicit in the nature of the market, and its ceaseless evolution.

Stephen Harder is a resident of Rockport, teaching law for part of each year in China.