Social policy, Health | Australia

28 November 2018

With cities crippled by congestion and a rapidly growing population, Australia needs space-efficient transport solutions like dockless shared bikes, Craig Richards writes.

It sounded like a great idea. Bikes all over the city that you could hop on whenever and ride to wherever you needed to go.

For the busy individual, it ticked the vital door-to-door convenience box. For society, it provided the last-mile, congestion-busting solution at no cost to the taxpayer. Even better, people would get the exercise they so desperately need without having to sign up to hardcore activities like F45 or contact sports.

But after bursting onto Australian city streets in mid-2017, dockless share bikes are on life support.

A raft of companies have come and gone from Australian capital cities: oBike, ofo and Reddy Go from Sydney, ofo from Adelaide and oBike from Melbourne. Mo Bike is still pedalling away in Sydney and the Gold Coast.

The big question is, were dockless share bikes, like fidget spinners, a short-term fad, or are they a legitimate form of transport that had a wobbly start?

The place to start is looking at what went wrong. While it seemed they were filling a gap in the market, the reality was there wasn’t a market in the gap – at least in 2018 Australia. The authorities hated them. The non-riding public treated them as rubbish. The hardcore bike riders turned their noses up at the bike quality. Only a few of us optimistic urbanists welcomed them.

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The authorities led the chorus of discontent. They were unhappy when dockless bikes appeared on their streets without their permission. Without being given a chance to set the rules and having no way to charge the operators, they saw dockless share bikes as unwelcome intruders.

The then Melbourne Lord Mayor called oBikes clutter and threatened to ban them. NSW Minister for Transport Andrew Constance said dockless share bikes are disgusting. The EPA in Victoria promised to crack down on oBike with heavy fines.

When the authorities classified the bikes as litter, that was all the encouragement some people needed to embark on an extraordinary display of vandalism – and for others to condone it. People rebelled by throwing bikes up trees, in waterways and on bus shelter roofs.

Curiously, there was no mention of prosecuting any person who threw a bike in the river.

It’s disappointing that the dockless bike share companies cut and run so quickly. But if you want to know why it happened it’s worth remembering that old saying in business: ‘You never go broke making a profit.’

In short, the dockless bike boom companies just didn’t have a sustainable business model.

Were the meagre rider fees going to cover the costs? Were the authorities going to buy the data showing where people ride bikes? Were advertisers going to foot the bill with signs on the bikes? When cash is leaking out and little is coming in, investors will stop putting their hands in their pockets no matter how deep they are.

Some dockless bike share operations also seemed to rely on the much-hyped ‘gig economy’. Some of the people moving the bikes around in the middle of the night were casual contractors, not employees. I worry about any business that doesn’t provide basic human protections like minimum wages, safety standards and workers’ compensation insurance.

So where to from here?

With our cities crippled with congestion and Infrastructure Australia projecting that the population of Australia’s five capital cities will grow from 15.4 million people to 24.9 million in the next 30 years, the fact is, we need space-efficient transport solutions like dockless bike share.

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Almost 70 per cent of Australians travel to work in space-inefficient cars – and at least 63 per cent of those trips are in single occupant vehicles.

Replacing short car trips with bike trips is our best chance of winning the congestion battle.

There is still hope for dockless bike share. There are many innovations that have come back to thrive after a wobbly start – in fact, one of the most successful is the bike itself. The bike was invented in 1817. In 1819, a newspaper in New Haven Connecticuit urged readers to, “Seize, break, destroy… all such machines found running on the sidewalks.”

But if dockless share bikes are to ride again, we’ll need the support of our authorities. Other disruptive transport modes like ride share company Uber and car share companies like Flexicar and Go Get have turned it around. Although once hated, now that authorities have a way to exert some control and grab a piece of the pie, things are back on track.

Most importantly, we’ll need people to want to ride the bikes. That means providing more attractive places to ride away from traffic so we become a society where bike riding is a normal way to get around. We’ll also need places to park the bikes so the bikes aren’t considered litter.

While we prepare for the resurrection, brace yourselves for the next transport disruptor: electric scooters. On the way to our shores is another space-efficient, convenient form of travel that costs the taxpayer nothing.

Let’s hope the ride isn’t as rough for electric scooters as it’s been for share bikes. But if there does turn out to be a market for a new form of transport that requires no physical activity, I’ll hopefully not be the only one who’s sad that an initiative with the potential to get humans moving fell through the gap.

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One Response

  1. Simon Jones says:

    I was an Obike subscriber, one of the many who embraced the idea only to be screwed out of my deposit by the company who closed up shop and made off with millions in deposits from users across the world. They weren’t handy in Melbourne or Paris because they were often vandalised or not where the app said they were, but in Singapore I found them to be a really handy way to get around.

    I’m now in Paris where I have a Velib bike share account. However, I am also a frequent user of Lime, Bird, Wind, and Bolt electric scooters. They’re quick and ideally suited for cooler weather when riding up some hill is going to leave me hot and sweaty in my winter wear.

    Encouragingly enough, the Electric scooters in Paris don’t seem to be suffering from the same amount of vandalism that Obike, Ofo, Mobike and other bike share companies (including the cities own Velib) have suffered from.

    Will electric scooter flourish in Australia? Perhaps. The rate of vandalism of Obikes I saw in Melbourne was shocking, and the company showed little interest in relocating bikes that left the CBD, meaning that when bikes ventured beyond the CBD borders, they were essentially lost. Lime and other companies will have to find a solution for this, and fortunately, they have a few more digital tools, like geo-fencing, at their disposal.

    I hope that Australians will welcome electric scooters and not sling them in rivers in the same way they did with Obikes. But the companies who distribute them need to do be welcomed by the cities and seen as a solution rather than a problem.

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