China’s “Rainbow wars” are coming to the UK, as rival bike share firms set up – Ofo in Cambridge, Mobike in Manchester, and this week Singapore’s Obike arrived in London. Pay attention, because if China is anything to go by, this is going to be big.
The “Uber for X” cliche is overused, but bears some comparison here. These are start ups with billion-dollar valuations and venture capital piling in, using smart phones and pervasive availability to make urban mobility cheap and convenient.
The bikes have no docking stations, you can leave them anywhere sensible. They have GPS so you can find them, and unlock them with your phone, and they’re cheap to ride. On the surface just a variation on existing bike share schemes, but in practice it works out quite differently. No docking stations makes them noticeably more convenient and more reliable, and their sheer number will make them more available in far more places.
Their expansion is astonishing – in barely a year two million bikes have appeared on the streets of China’s main cities. At a stroke it’s changed cycling in China from a declining mode, for the old and poor, to a growing everyday activity for the urban young. And it’s done so without any public subsidy.
It’s not been without it’s problems. At popular spots like stations, huge number of bikes can pile up. I took the picture below in Shanghai recently, showing a huge field of Mobikes outside a station. Just a few weeks later the city government banned bike share from some streets.
It is only a matter of time before Manchester and London see similar complaints, and pressure for controls. It’s not often cities are offered such a large-scale, privately-funded investment in environmentally friendly transport. And it as a “last-mile” mode it will greatly extend the catchment of existing stations. There’s a lot to like here, so if we’re not to lose the benefits in the inevitable backlash, TfGM and TfL will need to plan to accommodate, not just control.
That means two things – first is bike parking. Both Mobike and Obike ask users to park in designated cycle parking. But huge numbers of bikes take up a lot of space – far less than most modes, but still a lot. Who is this space taken from? Traditionally bike parking takes space from pedestrians, but in city centres the pavements are full and it’s time some car parking made way for cycles too.
When people start to complain about “piles” of bikes “dumped” on our streets, it’s worth taking a moment to notice how much space we current give to piles of cars dumped on our streets. In London’s West End, literally acres of the worlds most valuable land is devoted to storage for the 7% of residents who own a car, or the 6% of workers who drive to work.
The other preparation needed to make the most of this is more protected cycle lanes, which Chinese cities have on most main roads. After years of just painting pictures of bikes on the road, transport planners are finally accepting that the only sure-fire way to get more people cycling is to provide physically separated lanes. Normal people don’t want to dress up in special clothes and do battle with the traffic, they want to cycle as casually and spontaneously as they would walk somewhere, which means a safe lane with no lorries or cars.
For bike share this is even more important, the whole point is to allow easy and casual use. Oily chains are hidden away, and lights come on automatically, so you can hop on wearing your suit or whatever, with as little thought or preparation as hopping in a cab. The users that Mobike and Obike need to attract to become truly mass-market will only join in when cycling infrastructure is safe enough for everyone.
One final catch – while this investment is privately funded, there could still be costs for the public sector. Any car parking removed to make way for cycles means a loss of revenue for the council. And the journeys themselves are as likely to be a mode shift from buses as from cars, so could reduce revenues supporting local services.
But to focus on this is to miss the bigger picture. We’re witnessing the sudden arrival of a whole new strand to our urban transport system. It’s cheap, fast, clean, healthy and space-efficient. Let’s make the most of it.
I’ve not yet had a chance to try Mobike or Ofo, but here’s what I found from my first trial of Obike in London.
The app is good (with just a few details not yet updated from Singapore). It’s very easy indeed to use once you’ve set it up by registering and paying the refundable £49 deposit. They’re cheap to ride but you have to make that initial commitment, will £49 put people off?
You can find bikes on the map (they’re spreading rapidly as I write), it guides you how to walk there, and you can reserve it on the way. Unlocking is quick and simple with a Q-code scan from the app (you do need an internet connection, GPS, and Bluetooth enabled). When you’re finished just click the wheel lock back and check it’s registered on your phone.
The bikes themselves are basic but smart, much lighter than Santander Bikes. The single gear is set at a surprisingly high ratio, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this puts non-cyclists off, particularly anywhere with the slightest hill. The biggest problem for me was the seat height, which adjusts but not nearly enough for anyone tall, and I’ve heard the same concern about Mobike. I don’t know if the design from the Far East has been adjusted for the western market, but the current bikes will be really handy for a short potter, but painful for anything longer.
But that’s OK, because they’re meant for the last mile, and many people will use them for getting to and from stations, or getting about the local area.
Now it’s your turn, download the app and give it a try.
PS – I’m blocking any comments that mention bike helmets!