It promised a lot, but this month oBike walked away from Melbourne after just one year. The key problem was the same one faced by all forms of cycling in Australian cities.
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 its 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 behaviour.
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 have 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?
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