The great dockless bike tragedy
Dockless bikes are taking pretty heavy flak. Last month, oBike slashed the number of bicycles in its fleet in Munich after suffering losses through vandalism, and following criticism of the poor quality of its service.
And dockless bikes are slated pretty much everywhere for cluttering the streets. That has been an issue in Munich and in Paris, with the latter looking to tighten up regulation to stop thousands of tether-free bikes pouring onto the streets. And in the US, Washingtonians are none too happy with a dockless bike share scheme which has been running for four months and is operated by three companies – Spin, LimeBike and Mobike – each of whom are providing 400 bikes. Again, littering is the big bugbear.
There have been problems in Asia too. In China, Wukong Bicycles operated for just six months before most of its bikes were stolen, while Beijing’s 3Vbike went under after 1,000 bicycles disappeared within four months.
oBike has also had vandalism problems in its home market of Singapore, as well as in neighbouring Malaysia, while in Australia, the company, as well as rival Ofo, have suffered fleet losses as criminals strip the bikes of their built-in GPS gear before posting them openly for sale on eBay.
People have been trashing the bicycles in Oz, too, with the city of Sydney having to deploy teams to pick up damaged bikes, as well as those causing obstruction. Officials are charging the sharing operators A$70 to get them back, otherwise they plan to recycle them.
oBike Australia is not happy with the city authorities, saying the move penalises operators rather than educating users (though that’s surely oBike’s job). The company told SBS News rather lamely that impounding the bikes "would only serve to stifle the start-up culture", which sounds like an argument from another era.
Just for the record, oBike is no tiny pop-up outfit doing good and fighting the big guys. The company raised $45m last year to fund its international expansion – its strategy seems to largely consist of pouring thousands of cheap bikes onto city streets in one fell swoop without really providing adequate management and maintenance services.
In Munich, a city planner says of oBike that it was evident that building out a bike-sharing platform quickly without taking much care would have “negative consequences”.
Regulators are now fighting back. The Parking Places (Amendment) Bill was tabled in the Singapore Parliament in March and its provisions would place oBike and others under a new licensing regime under the Land Transport Authority.
The core issue with bike-sharing? Some think it’s solely to do with the ‘tragedy of the commons’, the theory that people using a shared resource act independently in their own interests and to the detriment of the resource and the collective.
However, that doesn’t explain why bike-sharing schemes where users have to return the bicycles to a docking station don’t have the same kinds of problems.
“When operators simply flood the streets with dockless bikes that don’t seem to belong anywhere or to anyone, it seems like a free-for-all and invites lawlessness,” believes Sabine Stork, co-counder of Thinktank International Research. “To consumers, there appears to be no structure to the service while the entity behind them seems not to worry about its property – that then fosters a so-why-should-I-care? approach to these bikes.”
She adds, “with docked bikes, there is an invisible proprietor and authority, plus clearly there are rules and an etiquette to provide a sense that consumers are sharing a resource with a community of users. The lesson for the tragedy of the commons is surely that you need a regulatory structure to make it work for everyone.”