Bikes unleashed: the future of dockless

The dockless trend is challenging the traditional cycle share concept. Kieran Howellstalks to ofo UK and Ireland general manager Joseph Seal-Driver about the future of city bikes.

Where did the concept of ofo come from?
ofo was founded by five members of Peking University’s cycling club in 2014 to help students get around the campus. It exploded in popularity and went on to become the world’s first station-free bicycle-sharing platform, expanding to operate in 180 cities and 17 countries.

Why has the dockless concept really boomed in the last few months?
There’s growing acknowledgement that we need radical solutions to tackle the serious problems our cities face, from the “last mile” challenge – getting people from the local train station to their house or office – to perennial issues like air pollution, road safety and congestion. Technology plays a key role; within minutes riders can simply download an app, unlock their nearest bike via Bluetooth and be on their way.

What is the current situation with the company?
We’ve been operating in China for several years but have expanded globally this year. We’re now in over 180 cities in 17 countries around the world, operating 10m bikes and seeing 32m rides every day. Within the UK we’re in Cambridge, Oxford, Norwich and London; we’ve just announced that we’ll be rolling out to Sheffield very soon. Our priority right now is to continue our expansion into more cities around the world. It’s our aim to be in 200 cities in 20 countries by the end of the year.

Can you tell me about the quality of the bikes? What makes them perfect for dockless sharing?
We pride ourselves on having the best bikes in the UK and we’re constantly looking for ways to improve the experience for our riders. We’ve been through several generations of bikes in the UK already, improving them and refining them for life in our cities each time. We brought in three-speed hubs to make riding up hills easier and a hydraulic seatpost so customers can set the correct saddle height with the simple squeeze of a lever.

They have robust but light frames, a sturdy front basket, a dynamo front light and sustainable solar-powered rear light. They weigh only 17kg, which is around 8kg less than a Santander Cycle. As well as the ergonomic advantages they’re equipped with all the technology that allows dockless to work, such as GPS and mobile data chips so that the bikes can constantly communicate their location back to us.

Do you think there’s space for the conventional bike shop in the industry or is dockless the future?
We believe there will be an ever greater migration towards cycling in our cities and there’s absolutely space for both privately owned bicycles and dockless schemes like ofo. In fact, we work in partnership with local bike shops to maintain our bikes.

But there’s no doubt that dockless bike-sharing makes cycling a realistic option for more people, and provides the flexibility that city dwellers need. It has a huge role to play in getting people on bikes by making cycling cheaper, more convenient and accessible to all parts of the local community.

We’ve heard a lot about damage to dockless bikes, how do you aim to prevent crime and fix damage?
We’ve found that so far there have been very few instances of misuse or bikes being abandoned, and we’re pleased with how the bikes have been received by locals in Cambridge, Oxford, Norwich and London. Where any issues arise we have large teams of marshals on the ground to deal with them straight away.

We get feedback from customers and residents who tweet us or give us a call so we can respond immediately. We’re confident that the more people use the service, the more people understand how it works, and the better it becomes. We’ve also introduced a new alarm that sounds if someone attempts to move a bike without hiring it first. We’re confident that this will cut down on the already low levels of abuse.

In the long run, how will dockless affect the future of the cycling industry?
Bike sharing has the potential to make cycling more accessible for everyone in cities and make travelling greener, quicker and more fun. Ultimately, we want to reshape the way people travel from A to B, driving the numbers of people cycling from the levels we currently see – two per cent in London – to those we see in cities like Amsterdam.

What are your plans for expansion?
We’re speaking to all the big cities in the UK – our vison is that you can use ofo wherever you go in the UK through one app, solving the last mile transport problem. Our founder recently spoke at a conference in London and said that he’d like to see 150,000 bikes across London, and to boost the percentage of trips made by bike in the city from current levels of two per cent to beat Amsterdam’s 30 per cent. We believe we can do this in London and repeat that sort of success in every major city across the UK.

Do you think in the future we’ll see electric dockless bikes?
We’ve said in the past that we’re working on electric bikes and hope to introduce them soon.

A lot of people are claiming that the dockless model could fail, what do you say to those people?
We believe that bike sharing is a long-term viable alternative to public transportation, taxis, and driving, and that this will only increase as our cities grow more and more crowded and expensive. It’s important that the industry is run responsibly if we want it to succeed in the long term. The key for us is partnering with local councils and communities to ensure that new technology meets the needs of the local area.

At a local authority level, this means working closely with councils to ensure our service seamlessly integrates with existing cycling infrastructure, with beta launches to gather initial insights of usage patterns, as well as the creation of codes of conduct for
bike sharing companies.

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