Urban stories

Bike Share War

By Andrej Mrevlje |

The war of the American city, between bikers and car drivers, is not yet over, but a new one has already been announced. It will happen between the traditional bike share companies and the ones that are now using new technologies, technologies not native to the U.S.

They are painted in every kind of color: silver and orange, yellow and green, orange, blue, you name it. These are the colors of the growing armies of bikes preparing for the next urban American street war. In Washington DC, they first appeared in September, standing alone on the corners of the sidewalks of the nation’s capital. Because nobody introduced them, they just stood there, calling the attention of bypassers with their bright colors. An obvious marketing ploy, an invitation to communicate, but not to ride. Must be an installation of some kind.

No, they were the frontrunners of the dockless share bikes, painted to easily distinguish them from the red-yellow Capital Bikeshare, which uses the classic style of bike sharing by placing their docks all over the city. You unlock them with a swipe key or credit card, and ride to another station and drop the bike off. The Capital Bikeshare employees then drive their vans around the city in order to reshuffle the bikes among empty or full stations.

The dockless bike-share is attacking this well established and profitable business with new technology that allows riders to drop their horse wherever they want. All the dockless bikes currently available in DC, as Washington Post tested, have a built-in lock with GPS and cellular technology. You find a bike, unlock it with a smartphone app, ride it somewhere else, park it and pull a lever to lock the wheels. You can drop the bike anywhere you want, literally.

But as Recode.net reports:

As these few companies, just months old, attempt to scale across the U.S. and enter new cities, they are facing off against established players that have secured exclusive, long-term contracts. Bike-sharing systems already in place in cities like New York and Boston, for example, have sometimes more than decade-long deals in place.

It’s a moment akin to when Uber and Lyft were trying to enter markets like New York City and faced opposition from the yellow cab and black car companies.

A turf war has already broken out in San Francisco between Motivate, the company that owns and operates the city’s current bike-share system (known as Ford GoBike), and the electric bike-sharing startup Jump, a new player that recently applied for a permit for 1,000 bikes.

Motivate has an exclusive contract with the city until 2025, and the company has argued that granting permits to Jump (or anyone else) would violate that agreement.

On the ground in Washington DC, the city, with its well-marked, protected bike lanes and large sidewalks, dockless share bikes are slowly announcing their arrival. It would be ideal if these new bikes would populate the city areas that are less accessible by the original bike-sharing docks, which are costly to build. The advantage of dropping the bike wherever you want, and getting one without walking a few blocks, is obvious, but also tricky. While it fits the contemporary consume-and-dispose lifestyle, it is, in the long run, more expensive than the classical bike share, which in Washington DC costs less than $100 a year. Every half an hour of riding a dockless bike costs you one dollar per ride. Make your calculation.

On the other hand, if you like to walk and are not tempted by the bright, hip colors, you may stay with your classic bike share, use the safe bike you know, and talk to customer service when you need to tell them something. It is not clear what kind of maintenance and service the dockless bike companies will offer. Since the business is new and the companies competing in the potential market are still negotiating with the authorities of individual cities, the rules of this game are still unknown. The dockless companies claim that their bikes will have four years of life, but the question is, who will feed them in the meantime? Mobike and Ofo, the biggest, global bike companies, are coming from China where they had huge success because they were backed by investors like Alibaba and Tencet.

But, after huge investments and a couple of years of profitable business, some of the companies that flooded Chinese sidewalks went bankrupt. Following Bluegogo’s–the third biggest–collapse, users in China have complained of difficulty getting refunds of their deposits. Users of another bike-share company, Coolqi, complained of similar problems after the company went bust last month.

Just two days after China’s number three bike sharing company went bankrupt, a photographer in the southeastern city of Xiamen captured a bicycle graveyard where thousands have been laid to rest. The pile clearly contains thousands of bikes from each of the top three companies, Mobike, Ofo and the now-defunct Bluegogo. The huge pile of dockless bikes makes me feel vindicated: they never were anything else but a great installation.    

Thousands of share bikes laid to rest in the south-eastern Chinese city of Xiamen. Photo: Chen Zixiang

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