Dockless bike-shares: Why can't we have nice things?

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It is exhilarating to have a bike anywhere you want it. It is depressing to see the state of the bikes.

Sami and I have written a number of times about dockless bike share systems, but I had never actually used one since there are just a few where I live. But when visiting Munich, Germany for the International Passivhaus conference, and stuck in the suburbs 3 Km from the conference venue, it seemed like a good time to give it a try. The dominant share system is oBike, A Singaporean bike share company with distinctive yellow step-through bikes similar to many of the other share systems.

It is all very easy; you download the app and for the first few times you use it, the company doesn’t even ask for a credit card or charge you. For me, this was a very good thing; When I first tried a bike the lock did not open as it was supposed to, so I walked back to my hotel after filing a report about the broken bike. The next day, when I went to borrow another bike, the app showed that I still was using the first bike and that I had run up a 45 euro charge; not an auspicious start. However, this was automatically waived as I was still in my promotional period.

closeup of the GPS enabled bike latch/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

The next time I tried a bike, I scanned the barcode and the lock popped right open. Munich is very flat so I thought it would be easy, but this bike makes you work, really slow and heavy, it feels like I am pressing on the brakes. In fact, when I check, I find that the brakes are rubbing. I get to a shallow railway bridge that any ordinary bike would handle without a sweat and it is real work to get up it; I look forward to the glide down the other side but it doesn’t happen, there is so much resistance in the bike that I have to pedal downhill to my destination.

When it is time to ride home I check the bikes carefully. Does the front wheel spin freely? Do the brakes open and close nicely? Only then do I scan the bar code and get on, to find that every revolution of the rear wheel makes a squeak loud enough that heads turn as I ride by.

obike and bridgeEven this little hill was daunting on an oBike/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

On the next ride, it will not unlock, my promotion period is over. I have to enter my credit card number and they take five Euros on account. This particular bike is a keeper; no squeaks, no serious resistance, just heavy and slow. Even on this, the best bike I rented, I still get off and push it up the bridge over the railway because it is such a schlep to ride it.

broken obike Broken oBike four days later/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

On my last day in Munich I find myself in the spot where I tried to rent a bike on my first day, and the bike I reported as broken is still sitting there four days later; clearly my report was not enough to get someone out to pick up the bike.

In the end, the whole experience with oBike was a mixed bag. I loved the convenience of having a bike where and when I needed it, and even if it wasn’t the greatest bike I have been on when it worked, it beat walking half an hour to the convention center from my hotel. The app was easy to use and worked well, when it wasn’t charging me 45 Euros.

On the other hand, only one out of the five bikes I used was in what I would call good condition.

broken obikeBroken oBike in the grass/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I often saw broken and bent bikes by the side of roads, thrown in bushes. And this is in Munich, perhaps the most organized and orderly place I have ever been; even the drunks in the subway after a big football victory were orderly, politely lying down on the floor until their friends carried them out.

In her recent post, Christine listed many of the same problems, which led to the withdrawal of another bike share company from Europe. She asks if this is wanton, unavoidable vandalism. I am not so sure; I suppose in time, people will get tired of trashing things, and oBike will get tired of letting people ride without getting ID and a credit card. I tend to believe in the better angels of our nature, that we are better than this, that the trashing of bikes will be reduced to a manageable cost of doing business.

oBike also asked that their bikes be parked responsibly in bike racks; I tended to take mine back to the streetcar stop bike rack but I seemed to be about the only one. When they were launched, there were many complaints; one journalist wrote last September that “They are piling up in huge numbers in the English garden, in front of the central station and in narrow streets.”

However I was on these narrow streets, and in the English Garden and while I saw a lot of broken and abandoned bikes, the city was hardly begrimed with them, and they were rarely just dumped in the middle of the sidewalk. At least in suburban Munich, this was not a problem.

I am exhilarated by the convenience of having a bike anywhere, by the ease of the app. I am depressed by the state of the bikes. I just hope that these are all teething problems, and that it all works out in the end.

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