Wednesday 21 June 2017

How to get the most out of dockless bike share networks in Australia

Summary: Dock-based ("Kiosk") bike share has had very low usage rates so far in Australia, with Melbourne Bike Share having too few stations, too small a coverage area, and only minimum public funding to keep it in operation. There's been no exemption from mandatory helmet laws, though helmets are now often available with bikes. And, within the city centre, the retrograde introduction of free tram travel has become another obstacle.

Meanwhile, China has seen an explosion of privately-funded dockless bike share networks which have become extremely popular as the cheapest and quickest way to make short trips around cities.

Given the constraint of Australia's mandatory helmet laws, it's likely the only bike share networks that will be able to offer the low-cost coverage and convenience necessary to be even moderately successful, will be of the dockless variety. As of June 2017, the first of these private networks - oBike - has launched in Melbourne.

In this post, I'll collate feedback, tips and suggestions on how to make dockless bike share successful in cities like Melbourne - for users, companies and cities (e.g. as a complement to transit).

It's vital to be aware that Australian cities, and interested users within them, can't rely on the same drivers of success as China: Most Australians who would consider getting around by bike will buy one and have efficient access to it; Australia does not have a longstanding transport cycling culture, and its cities typically have less safe cycling conditions for occasional cyclists, including less safety in numbers. Those who want it to work in Australia long-term, will need to find and unlock the specific niches that are most useful here while not overinvesting. They'll also need to be creative about unlocking other revenue sources.

Note: This blog post is a work-in-progress which will be updated with further analysis and recommendations as I review the experience in Melbourne over time.

Related Posts:


Updated Warning July 2018: Don't use oBike or other operators which look like they may quit or go out of business

- oBike has quit Melbourne due to its bikes being dumped in or blocking public spaces and new $3,000 fines if they aren't collected within hours. oBike has also quit Singapore. It will likely end up quitting Australia and other countries overseas where its bikes are unsuitable and become useless clutter rather than useful transport.

- oBike has so far refused to return virtually all users $69 deposits and generally fails to respond to queries about when they will be returned.

- On 28 July 2018 I emailed to warn them that oBike will ultimately steal Sydney members deposits as it has done in Melbourne and that it should act to protect Sydney residents now. I expect I'll be ignored but will update this post if there is any response.

> SMH - oBike users sweat on deposit refunds as company hits the skids

1. How to use oBike's dockless bike share in Australia

a. Go to oBike - Download app and get the iPhone or Android smartphone app

b. Sign up for an oBike account. This is easiest with your Facebook account

c. Pay the refundable A$69 deposit with a credit/debit card; this includes $3 wallet credit. The deposit is only likely to be taken if the bike goes missing during your rental (before you relock).
- Note the oBike video says $49 which is wrong for Australia.

d. Top up your wallet with sufficient money for planned trips. After any free ride period at launch (~1 week) the standard rate is $2 per 30 minutes.

e. Find a nearby bike using the oBike app and when less than 10 minutes walk time from it, reserve it. A reservation only lasts 10 minutes, but you can reserve again if need be.
- On the app, the blue pin stays in the centre of the map and only shows bikes within 10min walk time. So you often need to move the pin in a exploratory way to reveal if bikes are nearby. This is something oBike should modify so that the user can select to view all bikes within a larger walk time radius.
- Note that when you reserve a bike it is the only one shown on the app, along with directions to it from your location. To see all bikes again cancel your reservation.

f. Give the bike a quick check and adjust the seat height
- You can't check everything before it's unlocked but it should look undamaged and rideable. Adjust the seat to an approximate suitable height.

g. Unlock the bike using the app
- Bluetooth should be turned on to unlock and lock the bike.
- If at the bike in person in sufficient light, the easy way is to press the Unlock button in the app and scan the QR code on the bike's handlebars
- If lighting is insufficient or unlocking a bike for someone else who is physically present, you need to enter the Bike ID which can be found on the app's bike marker or on the bike sticker with the QR code

h. Once the bike is unlocked the rental starts; the app shows how long the rental has been in progress.

i. To end a rental you need to park it in an appropriate place and then manually push the rear wheel lock lever. Your smartphone app will then confirm the rental is ended. oBike recommends parking in a "designated public bike parking area or bike parking coil."
- In Australia, there are no bike parking areas specifically for dockless bike share. There are only various types of bike racks or bike parking-enabled street fixtures like street signs. As dockless bikes are locked to themselves it is generally not appropriate to take up a formal bike parking spot unless in a low utilisation area.
- However, if not obstructing pedestrians or general access you can sometimes park alongside these areas. The bikes have a kickstand allowing them to stand upright on their own.
- Alternatively, there are often informal bike parking spots that can be used for dockless bike share. E.g. Near the hoops on residential streets that protect vegetation (see the photo at the start of this post).
- In any busy area, do not park these bikes on footpaths or pedestrian thoroughfares at all. There are already enough obstructions and this will just lead to regulations that ban parking these bikes anywhere other than designated areas.

This is the rear wheel lock you need to manually slide shut to end the rental

2. About oBike's dockless bikes and system

2a. Best suited to people 140cm to 170cm in height
- The oBike's launched in Melbourne are of a single frame size which is closer to small than medium. The seat post adjusts in height to cover people from around 140cm to 170cm in height. Those up to 20cm shorter or taller can probably still ride these bikes but the ride is not comfortable outside of the 140-170cm range.
- Ideally, oBike should have bikes of medium frame size for Australia (or at least a mix of small and medium). At minimum, the seat post extension range should be significantly larger. And handlebars should be of the swept back style which accommodates a larger range of heights more comfortably.

2b. Best suited for easy riding conditions: no hills, strong headwinds or heavy loads
- The oBike's only have a single gear which can climb small gradients and spins out at around 25km/hr.
- Ideally, oBike should use a 3 speed internal gear hub as even many short city trips involve steep hills such as in the Melbourne CBD on Collins St or Exhibition St.

2c. Best suited for short trips at casual speed
- oBike's single gear spins out at 25km/hr. Also the bike uses a dynamo on the front wheel for the front headlight which adds some drag. And it uses airless tyres which are a bit slower. Overall, oBikes take significantly more effort especially with any resistance like hills or wind.

2d. Reliability and comfort
- oBike uses airless tyres so punctures and low tyre pressure should not be an issue. However, airless tyres are a bit slower. Comfort is good due to the width of the tyres which have plenty of give.
- Durability seems ok at first glance.
- There aren't too many quick ways to damage these bikes and make them unusable.

2e. Practicality
- The front basket is useful and can carry loads up to 10kg.
- The bikes have a kickstand allowing them to stand up on their own.

2f. Safety
- There are front and rear caliper brakes but stopping distance is slightly below average so check the brakes at the start of each trip and ride accordingly.
- The rear light is a very cheap and low power Mwave model that is partly obscured by the seat and anything that hangs over it. If riding at night you may wish to bring your own rear light to attach to the rear of the helmet.
- The front light is always on due to a dynamo. It is sufficient to be seen by others but typically not to use to see where you're going.
- The bell is a twisting type on the handlebar that is sufficiently loud for pedestrians.

3. Main tips for oBike and other potential dockless bike share network providers

- oBike should have bikes of medium (not small) frame size for Australia (or at least a mix of small and medium). At minimum, the seat post extension range should be significantly larger. And handlebars should be of the swept back style to suit a greater range of heights.

- oBike should use a 3 speed internal gear hub as even many short city trips involve steep hills, headwinds or carrying significant weight.

- The rear light should be placed in a more visible location. Ideally, at the end of a rear bike rack, but if not then at the end of the saddle.

- The front and rear mudguards should be lengthened to better protect the rider from spray.

- The app should have an option to show all bikes within a larger radius than 10min walk time. Currently, you need to move the map pin around too much to see if bikes pop up.

- The route calculation should default to your current GPS location not the map pin. The map pin is virtually never where you are or will be and it is often impossible to centre the map pin where you actually are and still see the closest available bike as well.

- The Google Maps layer used should be the Bicycling layer - which shows bike trails/lanes - not the motor traffic layer.

- oBike should have monthly and annual plans to encourage residents to be regular users at a lower cost. (Melbourne Bike Share has an annual $60 plan for unlimited 45min trips.) And, for regular users, there should be a daily cap of around $6 in order to be competitive with the $8 cap for public transport.

- oBike availability won't be abundant in most areas so one disincentive to use it or to park it in the most accessible place is the fear that you'll be stranded with no oBike for your return journey. There should be a way for users to indicate a spot on a map where they would have used oBike had one been available. This data can then be used for oBike distribution including rider credit incentives for moving oBikes to certain areas. In low access areas, a sliding-scale credit for having the oBike you just used rented again would also be very worthwhile. E.g. $4 if re-rented within 2 hours. $2 if re-rented within 6 hours. $1 if re-rented within 12 hours.

- Users should be encouraged to lock the helmet within the rear wheel lock so that it remains with the bike. Many Melbourne Bike Share helmets get stolen by resident cyclists or just taken because it's there unlocked.

4. What kind of trips would residents find dockless bike share most useful for?

Some obvious examples:

- Getting around the city centre (and other key activity centres where there are enough bikes) and to adjacent suburbs quicker than walking or transit and cheaper than taxis/Uber.

- First-mile and last-mile trips to transit stops, especially when secure, weather-protected bike parking isn't available near these stops.

- Cheaper commutes to workplaces where secure, weather-protected bike parking isn't available. See: Where to park if commuting to Melbourne CBD

- One-way trips when you don't wish to leave your own bike stranded or at risk of theft overnight.

- As a "pub bike" for trips you wouldn't take your decent bikes on due to theft, vandalism or weather risk.

- For residents who don't own bikes or whose bikes are not as easy to get on the road, such as those living in apartments or who have their bikes stored in garages.

- For trips where transit isn't convenient. Australian cities run hub and spoke transit networks and so east-west trips are often much easier made by bike. Dockless bike share may be particularly worthwhile when your potential trip doesn't start and finish at home (thus your own bike isn't available).

- Whenever taking your bike with you is impractical but you'd like to use a bike to get around at your destination. E.g. For regular transport cyclists who catch the train or drive to work or other common destinations where cycling is convenient.

- For unplanned or opportunistic trips when you've already left home without a bike. E.g. Now that I have a kid, I am out and about without my bike more often. Potential errands and side trips occasionally arise which would be very convenient using dockless bike share.

- To escape transit or driving congestion, such as when getting to or leaving a sporting event with 70,000 other people. Dockless bike share can extend the zone of useful transit stops and car parking options.

Further Info:

The Urbanist
What are the prospects for dockless bike share in Australia?

The Guardian
Uber for bikes: how 'dockless' cycles flooded China – and are heading overseas

Bike sharing basics: Guide to bike share program types

Better Bike Share

RMIT Catalyst
> The Sustainable Urbanist: Are helmets the only woe to Melbourne Bike Share?