Dockless bikes: Urban junk or the future of pedal power?

Dockless bikes: Urban junk or the future of pedal power?

A new two-wheeled phenomenon has hit the streets of London; the dockless bike. You’ve probably seen these orange and yellow pushbikes propped up against walls and dumped in parks. Two firms predominate: Mobike and ofo. We already have Santander Cycles, or Boris Bikes as everyone but people who work at Santander call them, but those are docked in stands around central London.

Controversy rages (perhaps rage is a little strong) over whether these new additions are two-wheeled litter or provide a useful public service. You may have seen the BBC report on dockless bikes in China, from where Mobike and ofo originate, where millions have been dumped for scrap.

I have a bike and use it regularly, particularly for shorter rides around our neighbourhood, but I also use Boris Bikes when I know my return journey will be made using some other form of public transport. So, time to check out the new kids on the block.

I downloaded the free apps for both ofo and Mobike onto my phone and signed up. This proves to be very easy; you provide your email address and mobile phone number and they ping you a code. You log that into the app which opens your account and thereafter you give them your credit card details. Both apps work in a remarkably similar manner.

Time to look for a bike parked locally and that’s where I hit a problem. At the heart of the apps is a Google map which shows your location and bikes that are close-by and ready to rent. You need to have your roaming data on and apparently it all works more smoothly if you turn on Bluetooth. There are no Mobikes near me and just one ofo, about five minutes stroll from my home.

Digging a little deeper it seems that while not regulated by Transport for London (TFL) dockless bikes do have to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with local authorities and where I live (Lambeth) that hasn’t happened. Largely, I think, because there are a plethora of Boris bike stands in our borough. In the burbs dockless bikes are very popular and have largely been welcomed by the authorities. The upshot being that any bikes in our area are incomers brought by discerning people who fancied a trip to sunny Vauxhall.

Donning a helmet and high viz jacket I set off in pursuit of my ride. It was propped as you can see just outside a local primary school. Unleashing the yellow beast proved remarkably easy. Open the app, click on unlock, the app now takes control of your phone’s camera which you focus on the bikes QR code. A metal lock around the rear tyre springs open and you are good to go.

You pay 50p for thirty minutes with a daily cap of £5. By way of comparison: It costs £2 to access Santander Cycles for 24 hours. You can make as many journeys as you like in that time but if you go over 30 minutes you’ll incur another £2 charge.

So, what are they like to ride? Well frankly, they feel a little flimsy. If you’ve ever ridden a Boris Bike you know they’re built like tanks and are extremely heavy. Not something you can say about an ofo bike. These have three gears which for my money are set at a better ratio than the Santander Cycles, I actually changed gear which I almost never do on a Boris. Another plus is they have a proper basket on the front which would certainly take a small load of shopping. This is far preferable to the strange arrangement on the front of Santander Cycles which doesn’t quite know what it’s supposed to be.

A big downside is the saddle height. I’m six foot one and it just doesn’t raise high enough for me, so getting any kind of speed up was tricky and it also proved wearing on the knees. But you know what (?), for a short trip around the corner to pick up a loaf of bread and some tea-bags (we live high on the hog in our house) it was just fine.

I propped the bike tidily outside the house, secured the lock around the back wheel and the journey was over. Then came a little surprise, I received a text saying:

You’ve parked outside ofo’s operational zone! To avoid losing 20 points from your ofo score, please ride the bike back into ofo’s operational zone – check the app for more details on where we operate.

I checked Google maps on the app and couldn’t find where their operational zone is located. This rather defeats the whole object of these bikes which is the ability to pick them up and leave them where you chose. Albeit I accept they have to be parked properly and not dumped in the middle of the road.

I’m also not entirely sure what losing 20 points from my ofo score means and what disadvantage this has put me at, but it wasn’t sufficiently scary for me to do anything about it. Around twenty minutes after I left the bike, someone else picked it up so it’s now off my conscience.

Just checking the Mobike app again and I see there is a bike available just over the road. On further inspection it turns out a neighbour has the bike parked in their back garden, so  inaccessible unless I knock on their door. Not sure what happens here, but I assume at some point a Mobike operative will be paying them a call.

What to make of dockless bikes? They’re flimsy, but cheap. They’re handy but often dumped in ugly heaps. To answer your unspoken question, I’m sure I will be booking another ride. And ultimately isn’t anything that gets us going places leaving no carbon footprint a good thing?

Before I go, you might be asking why the name ofo? Apparently, according to the company, the logo looks like someone riding a bike. Now you know.

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