Mobility Wars

Cities everywhere have been scrambling to rethink local mobility. There’s much to learn from the past few years.

Robin Howie
Jul 3, 2020 · 12 min read

As we cautiously emerge out of our Covid-19 lockdowns the challenge at hand is to limit the risks that come with crowded public transport.

Amidst the terrible impact of Covid-19 and all of the grief, anxiety and the uncertainty, there has been some positive news… It’s been well reported that the measures to tackle the coronavirus pandemic have led to a huge drop in air pollution. In parts of the UK, we have seen a drop in air pollution by up to 60%. Sixty!!!

The stars have aligned and demand for cycling has rocketed. Each week we are seeing more positive news that helps us imagine our cities roads a little less car-centric.

Bike shops have seen a huge spike in trade; old bikes are being brought in for repair and new bikes are selling out before they’ve even arrived at the shop (let alone been built).

One of the memories I will fondly recall of life in lockdown was passing by a small independent repair workshop in my neighbourhood … it’s not a glamorous or trendy affair, just a hole-in-the-wall workshop on a back street. To be honest, it typically looks closed or through an ajar door, you can see a lone man working on repairs with a cat for company… mid lockdown I passed by and the operation had spilt out onto the whole street with a small team of mechanics all quickly working to get bikes put into working order, customers patiently working in a socially distanced arc around the action, it was an incredibly heartwarming and inspiring sight to see.

What’s heartening is that it’s not just a resurgence at a grassroots community level… there are really positive signs that these are changes that are being deployed to help with social distancing but stand a chance of lasting as a longterm vision for urban mobility that puts wellbeing first.

Councils have been remarkably agile to deploy measures that make streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists. Last month the UK government announced plans to invest £250m boosting cycle infrastructure. A couple of weeks later the Mayor of London announced a rather huge chunk of central London will remain car-free for the foreseeable future.

As dark as the last few months have been I will admit I have found a little joy in seeing a little parallel universe bubbling to the surface where inside London you can hear birdsong, where the city has cleaner air, where people are seizing the spaces outside of their homes and making them into defacto gyms and public spaces and of course… there is a real joy in the roads having less cars and more people safely cycling.

We can encourage and design for this positive momentum to keep building However I think we might need a different model to the one that is already at play.

Mobility Wars: An urban battleground

What I want to reflect on for a little while is the space that sits adjacent to citizens resurrecting their old flat-tired dusty bikes, or the city-dwellers flocking to buy new bikes… For the last few years, London has been a battleground of Mobility Wars. Leagues of dockless-bike-hire startups have come and gone… a floating infrastructure that whilst we sleep is redeployed wherever the data suggests that the floating fleets could be most profitable… The startups do this whilst operating within the parameters that each borough permits each different startup to operate in.

Turf Wars: Operating zones and bike availability mid lockdown

The perpetual optimist in me see’s that on a city level it makes sense to create as much access to mobility as possible… and that competition is healthy… More so I think it’s applaudable that the Mayor’s office in recent years has welcomed competition to the cities own cycle hire stock (TfL bikes launched in 2010 initially with backing from Barclays bank, later Santander bank). Floating bikes can often be left in areas where TfL docking stations simply aren’t located.

However, on a local level, the picture is much messier. I have to pinch myself every now and then, whilst I can wax lyrical that design and technology can create more access to movement across cities, there’s something important to remember… The Mobility Wars are a private layer on top of the public realm playing turf wars. Floating bikes are often floating obstacles that can only really be regulated by the last users common-sense, my heart truly sank the first time I saw how wrong this can go, seeing an elderly person on a electric scooter approach a collection of dockless bikes strewn across a narrow pavement with no room to manoeuvre around them or safely turn around... an option that should not ever need to be an option.

The Mobility Wars have their casualties too… debris of vandalised and broken bikes can be found in almost every borough, on streets, in parks, in waterways.

And whilst as much as each startup will tout cycling for having green credentials these start-ups are engineered for aggressive growth with little regard for their environmental impact. You’ll probably remember some of the pictures from a couple of years ago, where over-production was rife and repairs more expensive than scrapping bikes altogether.

Sadly this narrative in Mobility Wars lingers on… The latest chapter saw Uber lead a $170m investment round in Lime… for then Lime to acquire Uber’s Jump subsidiary of e-bikes and e-scooters. Uber palmed off the subsidary as it has had to make massive cuts throughout the pandemic with large layoffs and scaling back from a few geo’s.

Somewhere in that deal Lime’s valuation went down 79% and 20,000 Jump bikes were destroyed. Recycling proved too ‘complicated’. Those easily identifiable red bikes just didn’t fit with Limes existing green fleet did they. Mobility Wars are brand wars.

The Robin Hood of Mobility Wars

Those pictures of fields of broken and unused bikes have stayed with me since they first emerged… They represent the real submerged part of the iceberg, but I’ve also been interested to document what we see on the ground in our cities.

Documenting the fallout of Mobility Wars has become a bit of an obsession. Out of all the startups to launch in London Ofo was the one that first caught my eye… I’m not sure if it was the first of the startups to launch in London but it was definitely the most disruptive, there’s something about yellow as an identifier of services in the public realm that just pops out above all other colours.

The riding experience of an Ofo was awful but delightfully awful. Rolling back in time a bit before all the e-bikes launched, Ofo and Mobike were the only alternatives to TfL docked bikes… in comparison to the TfL bikes, Ofo was as light as a feather… the steering was so light that it made the experience feel like you were on a dodgy bmx. They felt fun but in a dangerous way, however sometimes they were just dangerous — once I rented an Ofo where the breaks where next to non existant.

What got me a little hooked on Ofo’s was that initially, there questionable business model was to offer bikes pretty much for free. For a few months providing you had the app you had lots of free introductory rides …and after that you could top-up a minimum amount of £5 to your in-app wallet and take advantage of more free rides providing your journey was shorter than the distance the tariff kicked in.

Fast = Free

The combination of free rides and the disruptive yellow effectively gamified any journey through the city… If I can spot a bike then its mine for the taking and my journey instantly becomes more fun.

On the flipside of all this, Ofo bikes started turning up like an alien invasion in neighbourhoods across the city. They stuck out a little too much and their cheap design and build made them incredibly inviting to vandals.

TfL bikes have of course been vandalised too with many ending up in the Thames and the cities canals… But Ofo never had the gravitas of public infrastructure. They felt silly and fun to ride, no-one really appeared to own them (Ofo was owned by a chinese firm with a tiny operational team in the UK). The bikes just turned up and you could ride them or do what you want to them with no one really watching. After Ofo stopped the free rides you started to see a lot of bikes with their back lock was broken off… essentially returning them to a perpetually free version of floating transport.

The Robin Hood of bikes

What has kept me interested in Ofo bikes is really how the startup got it so wrong… As a startup tale its a classic failure but I think there’s an alternative narrative there… A VC backed operation that accidentally created a free civic mobility infrastructure

16th of July 2018 / Angel, London
The first time I took notice of Ofo as a service that could be subverted was when I was trying to track down a bike to get me between meetings… I followed the GPS ping to a dead-end road… It was clear the bike (or at least the GPS unit) was somewhere to be found in this scrap metal merchant.

It then became a little bit of a habit of spotting cracks in how Ofo was being used… I was taking full advantage of the loopholes in its pay for use model so how where other people using and abusing the service?

20th July 2018 / Île-de-France, Paris
That yellow, it really is unmissable, even when under water.

27th of August 2018 / Stoke Newington
Oh hello.

24th September, 2018 / Hackney
I could have photographed dozens of Ofo bikes like this…

12th of October 2018 / London
Troubles were brewing.

17th December 2018 / Dalston

After Ofo

On the 10th of January 2019 things came to a head for Ofo, they had been suffering cash flow problems for some time, how incredibly surprising!

They filed for bankruptcy and swiftly pulled out of London closing all international operations outside of China. The 50 members of staff in the UK were offered to take a 50% paycut and keep their jobs… if they relocated to China.

At peak Ofo had 6000 bikes across English cities… there must have been a swift effort to collect the fleet and return to the stock to China… But a small mercenary armada remained… The Robin Hood of the Mobility Wars has endured and I have thoroughly enjoyed spotting them occasionally ever since.

26th of January 2019 / Stoke Newington
Days after the bankruptcy and spotting Ofo bikes became less common, but the withdrawal of business hadn’t gone unnoticed… Bikes branding was being obscured. Bikes were now claimed as the private property of citizens.

5th of February, 2019 / Shoreditch
The next month Ofo bikes started to be much less common to come across… but still that yellow made them damn easy to spot.

16th of February 2019 / Brockley
Spotting this one in South London made me smile, all that effort going into personalising it!

19th of February 2019 / Pimlico

3rd of July, 2019 / Shoreditch
The flipside of some bikes being left behind is that the dilapidated bikes have no one left to care for them…

19th of August, 2019 / Shoreditch
… but at least some kind folk stood this one up again after a few months.

11th of October, 2019 / Shoreditch
Months later the same bike is still there

6th of November, 2019 / Dalston
Ten months after the withdrawal Ofo sightings have become super rare. But occasionally they’ll just appear like a little wormhole into 2018.

9th of May, 2020 / Clapton
Throughout the lockdown I obviously wasn’t out and about so much, but whilst on a run I couldn't believe my eyes. Three Ofo bikes clustered around a quiet junction in Clapton, just sitting there. Waiting for people to use them.

After months of no sightings… and almost a year and a half after Ofo pulled out of London here are three bikes. Where have they hibernating?

My only guess is that people are good, someone must have been hiding these bikes… offering them safe shelter… perhaps just for themselves… but when the city needed to rethink mobility maybe that person decided to set the bikes out on the street for anyone to take.

So what’s the point in all of this obsession in Ofo’s postscript?

More than ever we have to rapidly rethink urban mobility. The lockdown has shown us that a city with fewer cars is a city that can breathe freely, a city where you can walk in the road, a city unburdened by the persistent noise of traffic. Unfortunately, public transport for all its virtues currently poses a health risk.

Cycling is one answer to all of these challenges, however, not everyone can afford a bike… the city-owned TfL bikes are just too slow, expensive and cumbersome to roll out further — so we’ve arrived at a point where the private sector has stepped in and, well, it isn’t working.

The goal of these startups was to become the Uber of last mile mobility… doesn’t it speak volumes that Uber itself got in on the act and has since sold off its entire stake?

Surely we can design an alternative system…

What if floating bikes were permanently free and readily available citywide?
What if we could design places to park bikes that didn’t clutter the pavements?What if floating bikes were so common there wasn’t much point in stealing one?
What if the design of free-floating bikes were joyful and safe to ride but hard to vandalise?

Yes, I am an optimist. But the past few months of lockdown has shown me we can afford to be optimists because a brighter, healthier future is possible.

Fieldwork Facility

Fieldwork Facility is a design studio for uncharted…

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store