Let’s talk about dockless bikes

Like it or lump it, the dockless bike share trend that has swept the nation over the last 12 months looks set to stick around for the foreseeable future.

And why shouldn’t it? When Santander bikes (or Barclays Bikes as they were known then) hit the city in 2010 they swiftly became not only a convenient and (relatively) cheap way of navigating London’s sprawling boroughs, they also became an iconic element of the city’s story, woven into the very fabric of what makes London so fantastic. The bikes had a significant part to play in the growing cycling advocacy scene, and along with a radar boost from then-mayor Boris Johnson, the city’s infrastructure has continued to change and mould around the only truly viable and ethical means of urban transportation.

Don’t believe me? Then track the route leading down to Southwark Bridge from Liverpool Street station in the early weekday morning and count the hordes of cyclists passing you by. The problem is, not every city is London, and even if it were, eight years later you may still find yourself facing a long walk to find a docking station. The solution to this is simple: create a similar bike share scheme, but do away with the dock and add in a versatile app that simply tracks your progress and leads you to your nearest and most convenient hire bike. The concept got off to a rocky start in the UK – after a distinct lack of regulation and a rather bold move on behalf of one of the industry’s biggest players, bikes were swept from the streets pending a full review into how the concept could work. The resulting document drafted by Transport for London, the Dockless Code of Practice, was introduced in September to largely positive reactions from companies like ofo and oBike for its constructive and progressive view on bike shares.

Along with explaining regulations on when and where dockless bikes are appropriate, the document also made it clear that councils are ready to embrace a more versatile business model: “The potential to get more people cycling is huge. Dockless bikes are a way to make cycling more accessible and will complement London’s existing public transport network.” “We believe the code of conduct is fair,” oBike’s Annebeth Wijtenburg tells me. “It ensures that the various dockless bike operators in the city operate to the highest standards, so we fully endorse it and adhere to it.” The company was one of the first to truly evaluate the potential for a scheme to operate in the city, and quickly came across some teething issues.

“oBike has learnt its lessons from entering certain markets too enthusiastically,” she admits. But as the regulations around dockless schemes were implemented, the brand was one of the first to adapt and conform to the wishes of local councils. “Liaising with the government is key; we are fully committed to complying with regulations put in place by the authorities, including codes of conducts and official legislation. We recently launched in Oxford and that was after thorough conversations with the council there.” Despite early hiccups, getting in on the ground floor has enabled oBike to corner a large part of the market, and it is now reaping the rewards of the relatively untapped sector. “Just to give you an idea about our growth so far, operations started in January 2017, with 1,000 bikes deployed on the streets the next month. By April 2017, we’ve achieved over 500,000 signups, and we now operate in 50 cities across 14 markets.”

The impressive numbers evidence the willingness from urban commuters to embrace dockless cycling, but if a willing audience has always been there, why has it taken until now for the concept to truly find its legs? Irish company Urbo’s founder Tom McGovern believes that this is down to technology: “The advancements in bike and smartphone technology have meant that the urban mobility of short trips around cities can be revolutionised,” he tells me. “The monetary cost for a council to implement such a scheme is nothing. This has led to councils who, up until now, could never afford to install a docked bike share scheme, the opportunity to introduce bike sharing to their community.” Compared to the bigger Asian schemes, Urbo is taking a more controlled approach to the potentially unlimited nature of rolling out bike fleets.

“We currently have 230 bikes in Waltham Forest, London. The reason we don’t have millions of bikes on the street like the Asian providers is that Urbo is a purely European dockless provider. We are concentrating on the European markets and plan on launching in collaboration with governments across the continent. This will in time lead to many more bikes being on the street in 2018 and beyond.” Of course, a practically brand new area of the industry is not going to operate without its own significant challenges. Reports on emerging fleets have been quick to highlight the dumping potential of the relatively vulnerable bikes, and one of the largest issues dockless schemes seem to be facing is acts of vandalism. “It’s a challenge that all dockless bike sharing providers face,” Tom comments. “However, rather than burying our head in the sand about it we face the challenge head on. We can’t completely stop vandalism and theft but we can mitigate the level of damage caused. This can range from GPS tracking and tamper proof parts, to collaboration with local law enforcements.”

This makes constant maintenance extremely important, which McGovern believes will nurture a mutually beneficial relationship with local bike shops. “Cycling shops are the backbone of every local cycling community. We partner with local bike shops for maintenance. It’s vital that our bikes are both redistributed correctly and maintained to the highest standards.” The other great threat to the dockless model is what some critics are calling the potential for a “bubble industry to burst”. In November last year, we heard the news that one of Asia’s largest dockless companies Bluegogo had collapsed in spectacular fashion.

At the time, our editor-at- large, Carlton Reid, wrote: “The collapse of Bluegogo – billed as “Bluegonegone” – is sending ripples through China’s dockless bike-share sector. Some commentators see the the dockless sector as a bubble about to burst, with the number of players likely to reduce as companies either run out of cash or merge.” In light of this revelation, should dockless firms be worried about similar instances to come? McGovern believes that this is simply part of the medium’s evolution. “Urban mobility, in general, is ever-evolving, so having open dialogue with everyone is essential, whether they agree with you or not. What I will say is that we believe dockless bike sharing will have a massive benefit to multiple cities and towns in the immediate future, and for years to come.” 

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