Saturday, June 17, 2017

oBikes in Melbourne - first impressions

Singaporean-based oBikes have just arrived in Melbourne. Up until now we've had only the Melbourne Bike Share scheme. This has had very low levels of patronage, which is generally ascribed to the existence of mandatory helmet laws and the relatively small number of bike stations (docks). Similar schemes in other countries (where helmets are not mandatory, though frequently encouraged) have been wildly successful by comparison.

oBike at a Melbourne Bike Share dock
Will oBikes kill Melbourne Bikes?
Melbourne Bike Share attempted to address the helmet issue initially by making low-cost helmets available in 7/11 stores and similar outlets, and subsequently by including helmets with the bikes. The latter approach has been somewhat successful, although there is no guarantee that there will be a helmet available, which means it is not possible to plan a trip that includes a bike leg, unless one is willing to first go shopping or risk a fine of $185. (I've suggested in the past that the scheme is doomed while mandatory helmet laws exist.) Melbourne Bike Share helmets have a habit of disappearing. They are not locked to the bikes, and there is no way to know, if one is missing, when or how that occurred. For some reason there are two in my house alone (I keep meaning to drop them off at a dock.)

Map of Melbourne CBD showing many bikes
Plenty of bikes
Although an "RACV spokeswoman" is quoted in The Age as saying the scheme is "part of Melbourne's culture with the iconic blue bikes," this statement does not bear scrutiny. While one may see tourists riding the blue bikes along the river or seafront, they have never gone mainstream and it is unusual to see one in use on city streets (unlike similar schemes in Dublin, London or New York, for example). Throughout the communications from Melbourne Bike Share and RACV in particular, there seems to be an almost sullen refusal to acknowledge the huge helmet elephant.

Dockless schemes represent a "next generation" approach, and oBikes - a Singaporean-based company - has just set up shop in Melbourne, offering free rides for the first few days. As soon as I read about it, I downloaded the app. There were some teething troubles, with SMS codes for account activation apparently not working on Day 1, but by Day 2 this was sorted out. The signup process was relatively painless. As with many apps, if one chooses to use Facebook as authorisation, the app wants to have access to your "friends" list - I denied this and allowed just the mandatory access. I didn't read any privacy notice - if there was one - and I have no idea whether oBikes wants to monetise Facebook contacts or spam them.

June 17 was a glorious mid-winter Saturday with clear skies and a top temperature of 15 degrees Centigrade. I saw on the app that there was a bike near Richmond station. My local station, Toorak, is only 10 minutes away, so I hopped on a train. While on it, I reserved the bike. This enables you to reserve a bike up to 10 minutes in advance, which is convenient and supports the ability to plan. There's actually a Melbourne Bike Share dock near Richmond station too, but I've never planned a bike trip from there because of the lack of certainty of helmet access.

App screen showing reserved location and time remaining
Reserving a bike is easy
I wasn't entirely confident that the bike would be there, but in fact it was precisely where the map indicated.

Unlocking was a matter of touching the "Unlock" button, and scanning the QR code (on the handlebar post and on the rear mudguard). Within a couple of seconds the lock automatically popped open, and the helmet fell to the ground. In fact the lock is the clever bit. It's bluetooth-enabled and communicates with your phone to begin or end a trip. I don't know whether the lock is GPS enabled or relies on your phone's location to know where it is. I could have explored this but I'm sure somebody else could tell me and save me the hassle.

The bike I'd chosen was brand new, of course, as was the helmet. The seat height is adjustable. The first thing I did when I hopped on the bike was sound the bell - accidentally, as I was actually looking for the gear shift. There is no gear shift, as the bike doesn't have any gears. By contrast, the Melbourne Mike Share versions have 3 speeds. In fact, every bike share scheme I've used has 3 gears (I think 7 in San Francisco). I didn't do a one-on-one comparison, but my impression was that the gear ratio was similar to the middle gear on the Melbourne Bike Share version. Or, to be somewhat cynical, the gear was too high going uphill and too low going downhill. On the flat, it was just right if one accepted that speed is not a desirable outcome.

The bike was heavy. Again, this is in keeping with all bike share schemes I've used, where sturdiness and simplicity are key attributes. The drum brakes are spongy, as expected. There are front and rear lights powered by the hub dynamo. Surprisingly, the rear light can be turned on and off.

oBIke parked
To my surprise, the bike was where the app said it would be
On completion of a ride, you manually lock the bike (and your helmet) and your phone shows that the ride is ended.

Rather like the experience of car share, it feels very modern and connected to have such an online and technology-enabled system. It's a little bit like magic.

It does rely on having Bluetooth enabled on your phone, and on being able to scan a QR code, but these are probably a given for the target ridership. Dockless bike share is clearly a disruptive innovation, and it makes the incumbent seem very, very clunky by comparison.

I spent a couple of hours in and around Melbourne CBD, did a bit of shopping, and rode 23km in total. Nice way to spend some of your weekend.

oBike on a bridge over a river. Melbourne in the distance
Are oBikes cool?
I haven't explored the UI on the app in detail, but one can view payments and past trips, access promotional discounts, and report faulty bikes or other problems. Apparently one can also share one's trips. The map needs work; it's difficult to see a local bike (in areas where they are infrequent) unless one actually hovers over more or less the precise spot.

oBikes have a few clear advantages over the Melbourne Bike Share scheme:

  • Greater coverage. A quick glance at the oBike app shows bikes are well distributed (already, on Day 3 or so), and there are apparently plans to include South Yarra (mysteriously absent from Melbourne Bike Share), Fitzroy, Brunswick and others.
  • No need to return to a bike dock. The app says that one can return the bike to any designated bike parking spot or bike hoop (although this information is unclear, and I didn't know whether I would get into trouble for taking my bike outside the central business district). I enjoyed being part of the "bicycle diaspora", leaving my final bike of the day outside the Woolworths at Hawksburn. This is SUV territory, where walking and cycling are strictly a form of exercise, to be undertaken only in activewear, so it may well be there tomorrow for me to ride down to Chapel St.  
  • Helmet locked to the bike. Assuming that riders actually bother to attach the helmet to the bike on its return (perhaps because they don't want to lose "points"), this enables people to plan a trip that contains a bike leg
  • A modern app with a certain "cool" factor

On the downside, there is a single gear.

A boy riding an oBike
Filmed under controlled conditions. Always wear a helmet.
Do not ride on pavement. Remain seated at all times.
I also think the rental cost is greater, at $1.99 per 30-minute trip, whereas Melbourne Bike Share is $8 for unlimited 30-minute trips within a one-day period (with better rates for longer periods - for example $60 for a yearly subscription).

Of course, the helmet thing is still a problem. Some people will find the thought of sharing a helmet off-putting.

oBikes lock
The clever bit
There are lots of potential problems, of course. Will helmets be stolen? Will bikes become a public nuisance on our pavements and be banned? Will they be vandalised? Will oBikes abscond with my desposit?

If I were a betting man - and I'm not - my money would be on oBikes (or similar operators) dominating this space in Melbourne, and making it more and more difficult to justify the continuation of the Melbourne Bike Share scheme. Which is sad, but that's what disruption is all about.

I left my oBike in Hawksburn - SUV territory. Will it still be
there for me tomorrow?


Wednesday, May 10, 2017

A master-class in discouraging interaction

Bothersome humans

In Australia, as elsewhere, many government agencies are grasping the nettle of customer-centricity. They engage with the public at all levels, design services to meet user needs, and attempt to implement continuous improvement.

Some agencies, however, want to continue to avoid being stung by the nettle.

VicRoads logoA recent interaction with VicRoads provides a kind of master-class for how to avoid engagement, and I’ve tried to dissect the interaction here, both to understand it from a personal perspective, and perhaps to help me or others when designing services to either facilitate or avoid interaction with the public.

By way of background, VicRoads manages the arterial road network in the Australian state of Victoria. As one might expect they have a customer charter and the various other mandated “motherhood statements” on their website (

I sent a letter to them to query the removal of a pedestrian access crossing to a local railway station and to suggest how they could help redress the situation. The details don’t really matter here, but my letter included a full description with geolocation and an annotated map.

In dealing with the letter, VicRoads applied several effective and noteworthy stonewalling tactics.

1. Change the medium

A correspondent is likely to have a general expectation that an organisation will use their preferred communication medium. Breaking this expectation is an excellent – and simple – step towards throwing them off-balance.

As it happens I had used mail in order to include a map, since their online submission facility does not support attachments – a brilliant tactic in itself.

2. Change the level of formality

My letter began with a salutation “Dear Sir/Madam.”

VicRoads’ email response began “Hi Gerry.” While echoing is a well-known technique for establishing and maintaining rapport, too many government agencies fail to realise that echo neglect can be just as powerful in achieving the opposite effect.

In this instance, the change has a strong subtext, letting me know that my original communication was informal or downright frivolous, and would be treated accordingly.

3. Be bureaucratic

The subject line of my letter was “RE: Compromised accessibility and pedestrian access “

VicRoads brilliantly entitled their email response “Re: VicRoads Enquiry Ref No. 501092988.”

This helps the recipient understand that they are dealing with a machine that has no soul, and sets an appropriately low expectation.

4. Ignore questions

My letter had asked a specific question about modelling of pedestrian flows. VicRoads neither referenced it nor responded to it.

It can be difficult for organisations to achieve this level of passive-aggression, as staff will frequently be tempted to engage with the crux of a query. VicRoads is to be commended for its resoluteness.

5. Ignore suggested solutions

My letter suggested a relatively small design change (the addition of a pedestrian phase to a traffic light). This was ignored.

The tactic of ignoring a suggestion is particularly powerful. It reinforces the understanding that the correspondent is wasting their time and would be well advised to go away.

6. Apply ad-hominem logic 

VicRoads' email response included the following sentence: “I understand that it may be inconvenient for you to cross to lights.”

My letter had not mentioned any inconvenience to myself. (As it happens I rarely use the station, and I am fit enough to “jaywalk,” so I am not inconvenienced.)

However, by applying this logic, it was made clear that VicRoads is sick of listening to whining from the likes of me, and why don’t I go away?

7. Be brief

VicRoads compressed their entire response into a single short paragraph. This communicates that VicRoads is busy and please stop bothering them.

8. Be anonymous

VicRoads’ email ended:

“Kind Regards

“Denis” may exist, or may be a nom-de-plume, but in any case is effectively anonymous.

Perhaps VicRoads has put considerable thought into the name “Denis.” Originally from the Greek god of wine, it conjures up an affable but slightly frazzled older gentleman with elbow pads in his tweed jacket. Perhaps it comes from a set of approved names.

9. The pièce de résistance

The ultimate way to kill a conversation is to stop listening. The final line of VicRoads’ email reads:

“NOTE: Please do not reply to this email as the mailbox is unattended.”


I was very impressed with VicRoads’ response. I understood immediately that VicRoads does not care to consider my letter, does not care to reply, and does not care to hear from me any further.

To my mind, this is an exemplary piece of work. Other organisations that wish to avoid customer-centricity should adopt at least some of the tactics used so adroitly by VicRoads.