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?



  1. Hey Gerry,

    I just saw your article on bike share operators.
    Also here in Germany we had many controversial debates about the obligatory use of helmets. For the moment, the use of helmets when riding a bike is voluntary. But I think there are many arguments for and against it.

    A valid point for me is, what happens if you make the use of helmets obligatory: People will simply not use bikes that much – Just as you pointed out. And from a national economy point of view, it seems to be a good idea to move people from using cars to using bikes and reducing the risks of cardiovascular diseases like arteriosclerosis, heart attacks and other health issues.

    On the other hand there are the medics claiming that helmets save people from severe head injuries.

    Both sides have good and valid arguments.

    Maybe more money should be invested in safe bike pathways and infrastructure to prevent accidents in the first place instead of working on the symptoms.

    Here in Hamburg also have a bike share operator, StadtRAD, operated by the Deutsche Bahn (german railway company). In the beginning it was not that convenient. Many times you were arriving with your rented bike at the fixed bike stations just to find them fully used. In this case you had to find the next station which could be up to 1-2 kilometres away. Sometimes you could not find any bike at stations even though before they were shown in the app.
    In the meantime, however, these problems have been fixed. The bikes now carry a GPS device, making it possible to simply lock your bike in a close range to a fixed bike station without having to attach them to the station.
    Also they have been setting up more stations and cover a quite large area of Hamburg now (

    Setting up an account is pretty simple and can be done via app, the website or at the stations themselves. The initial costs are 5€ (7,44 AUD), but the full amount is available on your account and can be used to rent bikes.
    With one account you can rent up to two bikes at the same time.
    Every 30 minutes of each ride are free, then it costs 8 ct per minute (~0,12 AUD) and a maximum of 12€ per day (17,85 AUD).

    I think the Hamburg StadtRAD is a success both for Hamburgers (pun intended) and tourists.

    Greetings from your former intern! :-)

  2. Phil, great to hear from you! As always, you are absolutely correct.

    - Gerry