London's Dockless Bike Boom: The Future of Urban Transport or a Plague on Our Pavements?

An Ofo bike in Shoreditch, London
An Ofo bike in Shoreditch, London | © Ofo
Photo of Claire Lancaster
Tech & Entrepreneurship Editor30 May 2018

With plans to expand across London, dockless cycle firms are cracking down on dumped bikes in an effort to keep pavements clean.

Beijing-based dockless bike start-up Ofo, which has introduced 1,250 cycles across London since last summer, has announced plans to introduce 150,000 more bikes to its London fleet, while competitor Chinese firm Mobike has added thousands of cycles to London this year alone. The expansion follows residents’ embrace of the brightly coloured free-range bikes, which can be hired with an app and don’t require docking at fixed stations.

While the dockless schemes offer a healthy, environmentally friendly and flexible transport solution, a growing number of cycles left on pavements, chucked into canals and drowned in the Thames have left citizens and transport authorities wondering how to manage the deluge as the number of cycles is set to swell.

Mobike | ©shankar s./Flickr

The concern stems from the outcomes of other dockless cycle schemes in other global cities; in Shanghai, the number of dockless bikes grew from 450,000 to 1.5 million in between February and August 2017. As dozens of start-ups flooded the city, urban infrastructure and regulations weren’t prepared, resulting in piles of thousands of disused and abandoned bikes. In Paris, Rome, Milan and Turin, dockless firm was forced to remove its fleet after 60% of its cycles were destroyed.

While London has, so far, had limited issues with destroyed or inappropriately parked bikes, start-ups are looking at preventative strategies to keep pavements clean and bikes and citizens protected.

To use the bikes, customers download the start-up’s free app, use the in-built map to locate a cycle, and unlock it by scanning a QR code on the bike. When the journey is done, users simply park and close the lock. Now, Mobike is turning to ‘geofences’ that won’t allow journeys to end or leave a person’s account unless cycles are parked in approved areas (i.e. away from canals or out of pedestrian thoroughfares).

Broken bicycles in Shanghai, China | © Elizaveta Kirina / Shutterstock

Meanwhile, Ofo, which uses GPS trackers to link its bikes to its servers, has deployed a roaming team of marshals with custom smartphone apps to look for abandoned, damaged, or inappropriately parked cycles. In the case of a cycle’s destruction, customers can be fined a service charge.

While the dockless schemes have been popular in London so far, preventative strategies for keeping the pavements clean is a step towards ensuring their potential as a viable transport alternative. As Uber, the world’s biggest name in urban transport disruption, learned in London earlier this year, playing by the city’s rules and ensuring buy-in from local governments and citizens is key a start-up’s long-term success.

Read our article ‘What the Uber Ban Says About London’s Tech Culture’ for more on the relationship between London and disruptive tech start-ups.

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