They seemed like such cheap and easy ‘nudge’; a bike-sharing scheme letting you scoot around the city for two bucks per 30 minutes. And they didn’t even need a dock, so you could literally leave them anywhere. Touted as a sustainable solution for moving around our crowded cities, Melbourne, London and Amsterdam have all recently blasted oBikes as dangerous tripping hazards.
Based in Singapore, oBikes Australian website shows hip, healthy young urban things enjoying the sunny freedom of these bikes, but the reality is very different. In Melbourne (as in other cities) the yellow and silver machines have ended up being dumped in the middle of the footpath, in trees, rivers, next to tram lines and even on top of public toilets.
What went wrong?
While local laws and infrastructure strongly influence what we do, it’s our norms, habits and attitudes which are most likely to work for – or against – the adoption of new behaviours. Local mandatory helmet wearing laws in Australia means you’d have to bring your own helmet or buy a cheap (subsidised) one from a convenience store, so that adds cost and luggage and removes the spontaneity. Many people don’t like wearing helmets (especially dressed for work), which is another disincentive.
Melbourne’s established tram network (which is free in the CBD) competes for the already busy streets. If you ride to work, you don’t need to share a bike (or have them take up existing parking racks). And Melbourne already had the RACV blue bikes dotted around the city.
How do they even make money?
Bike-share schemes don’t just make their money off the rentals and deposits, they cash in on our behaviours as well. The rental income may eventually pay off the cost of each bike, but it’s the deposits that add up; the interest earned on a few million of these deposits can reap a tidy profit.
And they also generate another income stream – data. The data on who uses the bikes and where they ride can be sold to marketers, business, retailers and governments. And the app itself is a source of advertising. Ker-ching.
Are we peddling the wrong message?
We are also influenced by what others’ do. According to BWA’s Dr Nicholas Faulkner, ‘Studies have shown that when we see other people littering, we are more likely to litter. So if people see bikes carelessly left in a pile, some are likely to copy that behaviour.’
As there is no apparent fine for dumping or damaging the bikes (try doing that with an Uber, for instance) people feel they are free of any consequences. Their care factor is zero.
Getting widespread acceptance of bike-sharing as a convenient and valued behaviour will take some time, as old habits and attitudes begin to change. Until then, we could be walking past more oBikes than we’re currently riding.