Dockless share bikes from competing operators neatly parked on a Shanghai street for convenient access by riders

Compared to the incumbent Melbourne Bike Share (MBS), new entrant oBike had a big advantage when it entered the Melbourne market twelve months ago – oBikes could be parked anywhere. By removing the constraint of docking at a limited number of stations (MBS only has 50), oBike significantly improved the share bike offering; it effectively created an infinite number of stations, giving users the same flexibility that riders of privately-owned bicycles enjoy.

But it proved to be more of a liability than an advantage when Victoria’s Environment Protection Authority earlier this month imposed a punitive penalty of $3,000 on the operator for each bike “creating a hazard”.

Why did oBike fail? Many think its flexibility was actually it’s weakness. The Age columnist, Matt Holden, puts it down to all those obikes left “lying down back lanes, scattered on footpaths, abandoned in local parks”, not to mention those “found in trees, hung on parking signs, left on top of portaloos, and more than 100 retrieved from the Yarra” (Farewell oBikes, we hardly knew you).

Mr Holden says:

But the real problem was oBike’s failure to get a social licence to use our city’s streets as a giant bicycle park: the operators needed to win people over to the idea of an untethered bike-sharing scheme where riders had to be responsible for parking the bikes sensibly. They failed to do that before launching.

While it was the straw that broke the camel’s back, I don’t think the “failure to get a social licence” tells the full story. The “real problem” for oBike wasn’t ‘bike litter’; it was lack of demand. Notwithstanding that it didn’t have to pass on the cost of docking stations to members, the operator simply couldn’t get many Melburnians to ride its bikes.

If they had captured the public’s imagination, parked oBikes might’ve turned over quickly, rather than languishing in the same place for weeks on end, ignored and unloved, graphically signalling the failure of the scheme and encouraging disrespectful behavior.

If travellers had taken to oBikes with the same enthusiasm that New Yorkers embraced Citi Bikes, there might’ve been less tolerance for the vandals who pushed oBikes over or flagrantly damaged them (see Why does bikeshare work in New York but not in Australia?). And it was vandals who caused most of the problems, not oBike members who supposedly ignored their responsibility for “parking the bikes sensibly”.

If Melburnians found them useful, there might’ve been a public outcry against the commercially unsustainable penalties imposed on the operator by the EPA.

If large numbers of Melburnians had embraced oBikes, it might’ve been possible to negotiate reasonable parking rules that served the interests of all parties, including riders, the operator and the public.

So why didn’t Melburnians take to oBikes? The failure of the operator to work constructively with the state and local governments prior to launch didn’t help, but I suspect there were multiple contributory factors. The oBikes considerable weight and lack of gears made them unattractive to ride, turning Melbourne’s shallow gradients into hard climbs.

But mostly oBike faced the same obstacles as MBS. The mandatory helmet law was likely a substantial problem. So was the fact oBikes had to compete against the accessibility provided by the inner suburb’s tram and train system (and tram rides are free in the CBD). Also, those who ride in Melbourne tend to have their own bike; unlike Paris or Manhattan, housing is generally large enough in Melbourne’s inner suburbs to accommodate a bike.

The main reason, though, is likely to be the perception that cycling isn’t safe. Cars and trucks still dominate road space in the inner suburbs and the number of fully segregated routes is limited. Bike share can’t rely on the relatively small number of riders who currently brave the streets on their own bikes; it must generate new users from among those who don’t ride. But prospective riders tend to be fearful of mixing it with cars, trucks, buses and trams (see What are the prospects for dockless bike share in Australia?).

I’m not convinced that bike share in particular is especially important for Melbourne’s future, but cycling – or more generally, slow two-wheel transport – has a huge role to play in providing point-to-point mobility as population and density increase, especially in the inner suburbs. Power-assisted bicycles provide a way to use existing road infrastructure for private transport in a much more space-efficient, sustainable and economic way than can be achieved with cars. Like mass transit, they should be a key part of the future modal mix.

What we can learn from the fate of oBike is that realising the potential of two-wheelers will require addressing the various obstacles to cycling. The most pressing action is to improve the sense of subjective safety of the next cohort of riders waiting nervously in the wings. The Victorian Government needs to boost its vision for cycling by an order of magnitude e.g. starting with a comprehensive plan for cycle super highways in the inner suburbs (see Is it time our cities got Cycle Superhighways? and  Shouldn’t all cities have a “cycle superhighway plan”?) and by accelerating the pedestrianisation of the CBD (see Should drivers give up road space for cyclists?).