Dockless bike sharing

This article was published in 2018, in Newsletter 140.

Dockless bike sharing seems perfect for bike-centric Cambridge: affordable, green, convenient travel for short distances. A great solution for the last mile problem, one-way trips, tourist visits, and people without a bike of their own. With apps like Ofo and Mobike, you should be able to find a bike, scan its QR code and be on your way in no time.

Ofo, which launched in Beijing in 2015, chose Cambridge for its first expansion beyond Asia. I spoke with James Timmins, Logistics and Operations Manager at Ofo, who explained that Ofo recognised Cambridge’s rich cycling history and culture, and wanted to bring something new to the mix. He described how Ofo’s introduction gave everyone in the city access to a bicycle, and could encourage the take up of cycling by people who, before bike sharing, hadn’t had an affordable way to try it. We discussed Ofo’s evolution in the city since its launch in April 2017, and the lessons they have learnt. Even though apps like Ofo and Mobike (which launched in Cambridge this summer) are taking a step beyond the inconveniences of docking stations and hire shops, the actual implementation of dockless bike sharing seems to be a challenge at times.

Unsurprisingly, dockless bike sharing first appeared in Amsterdam, in the 1960s. A protest group called Provos painted fifty bikes white and introduced them to the city, free for anyone to use, as part of their ‘White Bicycle Plan’ for improved transport. In 1993 Cambridge also attempted a similar scheme. The 300 green bikes released by the city council were also free to use, but soon most had been stolen, hidden, dumped, or vandalised. Within months the council had no choice but to abandon the scheme.

Vandalism and misuse of shared bikes is still a significant issue today. In France, the bike sharing company ‘Gobee’ had to shut down after 3,400 bikes were damaged and 1,000 were stolen. In the UK, Mobike recently pulled out of Manchester owing to high levels of misuse.

Ofo’s 700 yellow bikes in Cambridge are not always well-loved either. It is not unusual when walking through Cambridge to spot discarded locks or a shared bike locked up like a personal bicycle. Searching for Ofo bikes often involves the frustration of broken, trapped or hidden bikes. Recently, I cycled home from town on an Ofo bike with one pedal. My vigilante brother once retrieved from someone’s front garden an Ofo bike with cardboard jammed in its lock to extend its use indefinitely, and my sister bagged a free ride after finding an Ofo bike with no lock at all. Many Ofo bikes have ended up in the river, and I have even seen one broken completely in half. Essentially, this is a ‘tragedy of the commons’ problem. We live in a society in which our respect for something depends on our interest in it. People take care using and parking their personal bicycle, because they have a stake in whether it functions and whether it gets stolen. On the other hand if they damaged an Ofo or Mobike, they could just find another one, and if they parked one in the middle of the pavement, they could carry on with their day as if nothing had happened.

Ofo bikes and Mobikes.
Image as described adjacent

These shared-use products, scattered throughout the streets as if they are publicly owned, are also unlike anything people have seen before. We are used to products being on a shelf, behind counters, or, in the case of bike sharing, in a hire shop or docking station. Freely available products can prove too tempting for vandals. Timmins maintains that a lot of the problem relates to this relative newness of the shared-use bikes in Cambridge. ‘People don’t vandalise cars’, he pointed out, because people are used to their presence and respect their right to be parked on the road, undisturbed. Perhaps with time, the fascination with destroying Ofo bikes will decline.

Pony, a bike sharing app operating in Oxford, uses a better-quality model of bicycle than Ofo and Mobike, that costs a whopping £200 to manufacture. This compares with Ofo bikes, which the Oxford Mail reported to be worth £80 (July 2018). I spoke with Isabela Nomura, a member of the Pony team, who claimed that Pony has very few cases of bike misuse, and a high standard of maintenance, which involves checking every single bike at least once a week. It is difficult to gauge the actual level of vandalism experienced by these companies without seeing operations behind the scenes, but I spent months living in Oxford, and I never once saw a vandalised Pony bike. The only bad press I can find is a Pony parked on top of a bus shelter (which is quite funny really).

Meanwhile, Ofos and Mobikes can be found abandoned and rusting by the Oxford canals. This suggests to me that either Pony’s better-quality bikes encourage respectful use, or the higher cost of the bikes creates more of an incentive for Pony’s team to look after them. I suspect the latter – and their new ‘Adopt a Pony’ investment scheme puts even more pressure on them to ensure each of the 650 bikes is in good shape. On the whole, however, there is much less vandalism of shared bikes in Oxford than in Cambridge, which suggests that the culture of the city has a big impact on their fate. Pony is well aware of this; when I asked Isabela about expanding to other cities, she explained Pony’s wish to ‘grow slowly’ to ensure that ‘the Ponies are well accepted by the community’.

Image as described adjacent

If Ofo cannot manage to stay on top of the vandalism and misuse in Cambridge, either they will spend so much money on fixing bikes that it is not economically viable, or the yellow bicycles will become so unreliable as a means of transport that people will stop using them. Ofo has a team of ‘marshals’ in Cambridge for this purpose; they work at night to assess faulty bikes reported to them, and either fix them or take them to a depot for repair. Ofo and Mobike have points schemes to punish misuse and reward helpful contributions, and Mobike also requires a £15 deposit upon joining. Unfortunately, points schemes and deposits affect only legitimate users, and a lot of the damage caused to dockless bikes is by vandals who are not using the app.

Docked bike sharing is an alternative which avoids a lot of the issues Ofo has experienced. Since its launch in 2010, Transport for London’s bike sharing scheme has been very successful, with security measures which ensure that bikes are not mistreated. The bicycles are connected to payment cards, so if they go missing or are damaged, users are charged up to £300. Most importantly, the docking stations ensure that bikes cannot be stolen or damaged by those who have not unlocked them.

Timmins thinks that part of the success of the London bikes sponsored by Santander (formerly by Barclays and also once known as Boris Bikes) is its years of operating experience, and the refinements it was able to make. He pointed out that Ofo is still learning about the patterns of ‘wear and tear’, having not been around for as long. The UK operating teams learn from the way bikes break and send feedback to their Chinese manufacturers for quality improvements. The location technology in the bikes has been improved in the past year too. Over time, the Cambridge Ofo team has come to know the areas of the city where problems arise most often (which can then be checked more frequently) and they have learnt more about user habits and popular areas, enabling improvement of the distribution of bikes. So, give it a few years and these dockless bike sharing apps could be just as successful as the docked London bikes.

Captured Ofo bike.
Image as described adjacent

Or perhaps more successful? The removal of the docking station has huge benefits. A scheme which is reliant on docking stations can easily run into capacity problems. Users cannot park their bikes in convenient locations if docking stations are full. Having to travel further than necessary is annoying for users of London’s bikes, which charge per 30 minutes. Users of dockless bikes can park wherever is convenient. Timmins also cited the benefit of Ofo being able to adapt more easily to changes in demand than a system reliant on infrastructure. The companies are also able to save on the costs of this infrastructure, and so offer lower prices.

Given that people in Cambridge initially feared they ‘wouldn’t be able to walk down the pavement’ (Timmins), Ofos and Mobikes seem for the most part to have blended well into the city and into the city’s culture. As long as there is consistent and committed marshalling to look after the bikes and maintain their reliability as a mode of transport, a degree of vandalism is a price worth paying for both bike-share companies and for residents, owing to the flexibility it allows and the potential it offers the city.

Nomura notes that ‘incentivising people to cycle, in particular for short journeys, and as part of a longer journey, is a way of tackling [air pollution and traffic congestion] problems’. Everyday cycling encourages a healthier lifestyle, shared items help to develop a community spirit, and it is positive to see people cycling who otherwise might not. Timmins proudly discussed the ability of Ofo to enable poorer communities to access Cambridge’s cycling culture.

Time will tell whether the benefits to dockless bike sharing firms in Cambridge outweigh the costs, and if so, whether regular use of dockless bike sharing becomes a popular alternative to owning a bicycle.

Ellie Gooch