Bike-sharing on steroids

Autonomy’s offices are in Paris, and while the French capital is home to many important and disruptive transport companies, it has clearly got progress to make in the bike-sharing business. Which is why a few weeks ago, we met with Chinese startup Ofo, one of the first to offer cities a free-floating bike system. We are hoping that their presence at Autonomy 2017 will encourage a broad adoption of this concept, as well as its improvement.

European roots

The bicycle was invented in Europe at the beginning of the 19th century, so it’s no surprise that the idea of bike-sharing was also born on this continent. But while it’s become very popular in many countries, it’s debut was quite hectic. Flashback to 1965. In order to protest against recently adopted policies in favor of cars in Amsterdam’s city-center, the anarchist group PROVO — short for “provoke” — established the White Bicycle Plan. In it, they asked the city to close central Amsterdam to all motorised traffic, and to disseminate thousands of white bicycles across the city which would be public property and free for everybody to use. After their plan was rejected, PROVO decided to go ahead with their concept anyway, painted 50 bikes white, and left them on the streets for public use. Their action was suppressed but the concept of community bicycle programs had been planted.

1965: Provo’s White Bicycle Plan demanded the city of Amsterdam introduce public bikes in the city-center

Chinese frenzy

Today, many cities boast a bike-sharing system: the Velib’ in Paris, the Citi Bike in New York, and the Santander Cycles in London, among the most famous. But these systems are not adapting to the changing urban landscape and users increasingly complain about them. The main problem being that docking stations are a hassle: they are often empty or full, and sometimes quite far away from where people are.

There was clearly an opportunity for improvement, and China seized it by coming up with free-floating bike-sharing systems. The bikes are dockless meaning they can be dropped off and picked up anywhere thanks to an embedded GPS chip, and are unlocked by scanning a QR code using the mobile app. They are also a lot more resistant than traditional shared bikes: airless tires ensure they can’t burst, chains are replaced by shaft transmission, and their structure is made of anti-rust aluminium. Not to mention the competitive price: 15 cents for a 30-minute ride.

The two main start-ups in this field are ofo — the name was picked because it resembles a bicycle — and Mobike. It’s been only two years since their creation but they have already been valued in excess of $1 billion, making them unicorns. Ofo is now the largest supplier of public bikes in the world, with over six million bicycles in China, and Mobike claims to handle as many as 25 million trips per day.

No wonder tech giants like Apple supplier Foxconn decided to invest in Mobike, or Alibaba in Ofo. They gain access to the commuting habits of millions of customers! Meanwhile, marketers see the bikes as new promotional material. Pizza Hut ran a two-day promotion on the Mobike service, during which riders collected digital stickers on their smartphones to get free breakfast coffee. And a number of Ofo bikes were turned into Minions, little yellow characters from “Despicable Me 3”, to advertise the movie.

Some Ofo bikes became “Minions” for a few days to advertise the movie “Despicable Me 3”

Nevertheless, a number of people have shown scepticism regarding this trend. First of all, because several Chinese platforms have already gone bankrupt. The business model is indeed questionable: how can profit be made when bikes cost over $400 to manufacture and rides only 15 cents? Frequent misuse and vandalism also mean bikes often don’t last more than six months. Wukong Bikes recently shut down as it had lost or could not account for 90% of its bikes. Secondly, clogged sidewalks resulting from a combination of two things: the fact that the busiest streets are flooded with bikes to raise brand awareness, and that many users just toss the bikes on the side of the road once they’re done with them. Not only is this dangerous for cars and pedestrians, but it turns the entrance of local businesses into a real mess.

People try to pedal along a pavement crowded with bicycles from bike-sharing companies

Going West?

But these observations are not hindering the unicorns’ will to expand abroad. “We are definitely serious about international expansion,” Ofo COO Zhang Yanqi said. “The last mile issue for city commuters is a global problem to solve.” Ofo’s goal is to be present in 20 countries by the end of the year.

While the Chinese trial may not be perfect, it has lead to several positive developments.

1. Cities wanting to adopt the free-floating system are now aware that to avoid mayhem, they need a proper legislative framework regarding the number of bikes, parking, and sanctions for theft and vandalism. The UK is the first European country to test Mobike (in Manchester) and Ofo (in Cambridge). “We’re conscious that our city center is a complex and busy area already, so Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) has been working hard to establish a voluntary code of working with Mobike to make sure the service operates in a way that doesn’t inconvenience other road users, pedestrians and city center traders” communicated TfGM.

2. Brands are beginning to appear in other parts of the world. Silicon Valley was unsurprisingly quick to react to this new craze: Limebike was launched in 2015, and Spin in 2016. Both companies began rolling out bikes in Seattle this week, after the original bike sharing system Pronto failed to gain support from the public. The city has asked the startups to share their data with them to help the transportation department evaluate their progress and understand urbanites’ needs.

3. The high number of bikes on Chinese streets inspired Dutch designer and artist Daan Roosegaarde’s Smog Free Bike. The idea? Apply his Smog Free Tower, which absorbs carbon from the Beijing air, to Ofo’s bicycles. Featuring a front rack-mounted module equipped with an air filter, it will reduce carbon content, making the city’s air cleaner. A great example of how smart design within public infrastructure can help lower pollution. If successful in China, the Smog Free Bike will then be brought to Britain.

Making transport more efficient while reducing its impact on the environment is also one of Autonomy’s goals. And to ensure that the future of mobility will be a sustainable one, we gather public actors, companies, urbanites and journalists and offer them an independent platform to collaborate. If you’re part of the mobility ecosystem and this sounds like a good idea to you, then do join us. Whether it be as an exhibitor, speaker or visitor this October in Paris.

Let’s get our cities moving!

— by Marie Perez

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