October 6th, 2017

Uber on two wheels?

8 minute read

by Caroline Campbell


‘Non-docking’ bike sharing schemes are popping up in cities around the world. The companies behind the millions of ‘dockless’ bikes out on the world’s streets are claiming they’ll help with our transport and air quality problems, improve wellbeing, and de-carbonise our cities. Some planners hope these schemes will alleviate the first mile, last mile problem that bedevils attempts to encourage people out of their cars and onto public transport.

To use them, all you have to do is download an app on your smartphone, add your credit card details, pay a small fee, get an ‘unlocking code’, and find one of the many bikes. One tap and a bike is yours. Hop on, go wherever you want to go, and when you get there just jump off…. At your destination the GPS chip, which tracks your journey, will know when you’ve flicked on the lock through the back wheel, and the hiring fee will stop.

The advantages of dockless bike sharing schemes are clear: users can avoid the capital and maintenance costs of owning a bike and can pick up a bike wherever in the city they are, rather than having to worry about parking and recovering their own. Nor do they have to worry about locking their bike up, or having stolen.

The convenience of dockless bike sharing has led to the inevitable comparisons with Uber, whose business model is transforming the way taxis operate. As yet, though, there is no two-wheeled Uber – no clear market leader. Instead, there’s a profusion of slightly differing schemes. If we’re to freewheel into a future where shared bikes are the urbanite’s preferred mode of transport, there’s a need to learn about the best and worst features of the schemes out there to help planners and pedallers alike make informed decisions. Uber has come under fire for undercutting the pay of traditional taxi drivers, failing to vet drivers properly and evading attempts to regulate it properly, damaging its reputation and resulting in the loss of its private hire operator license in London. Bike schemes, too, have run up against problems with city authorities – so what steps can they take to make sure they are welcome arrivals, rather than a nuisance to be managed?


Chinese exports

The world’s two biggest dockless bike sharing companies, Mobike and Ofo, started in China. The country is famous for its pro-cycling cities – and cycling is enjoying a resurgence, in part as a response to the challenges it faces in managing both congestion and air pollution in urban areas with huge populations.

When I spent a spell teaching in Suzhou, South East China, I was struck by how China’s modern cities have been designed for cycle safety, with widespread separate cycle lanes, many the width of a UK ‘A’ road. In fact, my sister visited from London, caught the cycling bug in China, and returned feeling confident enough to tackle her local streets on two wheels.

The first mobile app-based ‘dockless’ bike sharing scheme came from Ofo, founded in 2014 in Beijing. The new system offered a cheaper, more convenient and less infrastructure-intensive alternative to docked bike sharing schemes like London’s – now called Santander Cycles (but more commonly known as Boris Bikes) – where bikes must be returned to stations for charging to stop. Hiring a Boris Bike costs £2 to register for the day: the first half hour of each journey is free, with a charge of £2 per 30 minutes thereafter. In the UK, Mobike and Ofo charge a flat rate of 50p for 30 minutes.

Dockless systems have rapidly grown in popularity, and Ofo now has about ten million registered users around the world, with over one million of its yellow bicycles deployed across 34 cities in China. They have schemes at various stages of development in the US, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Kazakhstan. In the UK, they’re operating in Cambridge and Oxford, with a scheme in development for London.


Ofo Bikes

The shape of things to come: the name ‘ofo’ was been chosen as founders believed the letters outlined the shape of a bike. Photo: Jon Russell (CC BY 2.0), via Flickr.


Mobike’s orange and silver bikes from first appeared in 2015, and the company has now overtaken Ofo, claiming over 100 million registered users across more than 150 cities. Most are in China, but they also operate in Singapore, Japan, and Italy – and in Manchester in the UK.


Saddled with problems

In China, the schemes are popular, which is translating into turnover. Mobike and Ofo have both been valued at well over $1bn. The cycle revolution is also having impacts on traffic: a study published by Amap, Tsinghua University, Alibaba Cloud, Ofo and other industry researchers, found that bike usage has doubled over the last year in China, accounting for more than 11.6% of total transportation today versus 5.5% a year ago. That contributed to a decline in traffic congestion across China during Q2 of 2017, with a particular decrease in short-distance car journeys.

With business booming, other start-up companies are trying to find their own niches in the market. Coolqi is offering women-specific bikes and onboard solar-powered USB chargers, while Bluegogo gives users broadband access. In some cities, Ofo now lets users share their own bike on the network, in return for free access to all bikes.

‘Bikes for all’, though, means headaches for some, and schemes can be a victim of their own success. Wuhan, for example, has 700,000 bikes on the road, while its forecast capacity was just 400,000. Dockless bikes can be left anywhere, and with widespread use comes problems. Large piles of incorrectly parked bikes have occasionally blocked streets, leading to the authorities having to clear them, while operating companies have to retrieve bikes from unexpectedly remote rural locations.

According to Reuters, some cities have decided to act to rein in these problems. Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Wuhan have all introduced legislation that stops additional bikes being added to schemes. San Francisco banned Bluegogo bikes after hundreds were put on the streets without seeking permission, Amsterdam has banned these schemes completely, stating that after investing in bike parking they don’t want these spaces used by commercial enterprises.

Nor has every scheme prospered. Wukong bikes, a sharing scheme set up in Chonqing, didn’t incorporate GPS tracking into its bikes and went out of business after just 6 months – 90% of its bikes were stolen or went missing. When Mobike launched in Manchester, there was an emergency services call every day for the first month, reporting theft or vandalism of Mobikes. Reports have since declined, but there are still stories of them being fished out of canals.


Ofos in a Lake

Ofo don’t do pedalos: badly parked sharing bikes. Photo: Anna Frodesiak (CC0 1.0), via Wikimedia Commons.


It remains to be seen whether even the successful schemes, which tend to have low rental prices, will deliver returns for the venture capitalists who have funded their expansion. One little-discussed source of revenue is the data they collect about their users’ journeys. Such information has a value to advertisers and others, but could give rise to privacy concerns for users.


Cycling proficiency

As bike sharing schemes spring up around the world, companies are making changes to avoid some of the troubles they have come up against. Mobike, for example, has incorporated financial incentives to encourage correct use of its network. Users earn credits when they help out by, for example, reporting broken, or strangely parked bikes, uploading photos of where they parked to make it easier for the next user to find them, or by leaving their bike at a public bike racks or other ‘Mobike Preferred Location’ (MPL). Meanwhile, rental prices are hiked for users who park in inappropriate spots.

A common problem with bike schemes is how to find a ride you can use. More help is now available: all of the bike sharing apps offer directions to your nearest bike, and you can even ‘ring’ a Mobike from your phone, making it emit a sound that will guide you towards it. Of course, issues can still arise – for example, if your nearest bike is locked in someone’s shed,

Codes of practice for bike sharing schemes are emerging to help define the do’s and don’ts. BikePlus, a representative body for UK bike sharing schemes, aims to support stakeholders get the most out of schemes. Meanwhile, the European Cyclists’ Federation’s Platform on Bicycling Sharing & Systems (PEBSS) has developed policy documents to help cities evaluate the services of bike sharing companies.

It may still take some time before the arrival of a new fleet of dockless bikes in a UK city isn’t met with some scoffing and grumbles about them littering the streets and making the place look untidy. It is a reflection of how engrained the motorcar is in our psyche that, while a few bikes on the pavement are intolerable to some, we accept the lines of cars along every roadside as ‘the norm’. However, with each new city that welcomes a colourful bike sharing scheme, expectations will change and we will move a few pedal-strokes closer to a lower carbon future for urban transportation.


Caroline Campbell



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