Citi Bike, NYC's bike sharing program, is a rousing success. Last year riders took 14 million trips. Each day more than 38,000 trips are taken, meaning less bodies clogging our overtaxed mass transit system. Remarkably, there has only been one Citi-Bike-related death in the program's entire four years. (In contrast, last year alone 48 people died on NYC mass transit.) Citi Bike is safe, it's green, it's healthful, and it's better for our city.
A large part of the program's success is because Motivate, the operating company behind Citi Bike, has gone to the considerable trouble of installing 600 docking stations (and counting) over 55 neighborhoods. In parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn it feels like there's a docking station on every third corner. That's a considerable undertaking and a barrier to entry for startups that would like to bring bike sharing to cities that don't have it.
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Ofo, a Chinese bike sharing company started by college students, is a company you may never have heard of. But according to Vice News they "went from a tiny campus startup to a billion dollar valuation in under one year." The company operates in 150 cities, primarily in China, and is responsible for a staggering 20 million rides per day. Ofo's bike sharing system is dockless. Here's how it works:
It is fantastically convenient, in concept. But the problem, as you saw, are bikes winding up in untidy piles.
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In China, where dozens of dockless bike sharing companies are competing with each other, "Pictures showed jumbled stacks of vehicles nearly three metres high, with handlebars, baskets and other parts scattered on the ground," the Guardian reports.
"Some people these days just have really bad character," a man named He, who lives near where the stacks appeared, told the Southern Metropolis Daily. "When they're done using [the bike] they just throw it away somewhere, because they've already paid." In the past few days he witnessed people demolishing the bikes before discarding them on the side of the road, he said.
Residents told the paper that bikes had been piling up over the past week, either parked haphazardly by careless users or stacked by local security guards trying to clear narrow residential alleys and footpaths.
The South China Morning Post points to a lack of infrastructure as contributing to the problem. "Problems such as illegal parking remain unanswered, and some experts say that's largely because many cities were not designed to be bike-friendly." Simply put, with no designated place to park a bike, they wind up everywhere. Residents, angered at sidewalks being blocked, resort to doing this:
And this isn't purely a Chinese problem. Another Guardian article reveals what happened when Ofo competitior Mobike brought 1,000 of their bikes to launch their system in the UK's Manchester.
Two weeks on…there are Mobikes in the canal, Mobikes in bins [dumpsters] and I am fed up with following the app to a residential street where there is clearly a Mobike stashed in someone's garden. On launch day, the Chinese designer told me the bikes were basically indestructible and should last four years without maintenance. It took a matter of hours before local scallies worked out how to disable the GPS trackers and smash off the back wheel locks.
Would New Yorkers behave any better? I doubt it. Spin, another dockless bike sharing company, recently tried to hold a trial in Queens. City transportation officials shut it down in advance with a cease-and-desist, as the Times reports.
Ofo, for their part, isn't giving up. As seen in the video above, two weeks ago they launched their 1,000-bike trial in Seattle, a city known for having bike-friendly infrastructure. The jury's still out on whether it's working or not. We'll be watching this space with interest.
Our question to you: What do you think is the biggest threat to dockless bike sharing, human beings being jerks, or a lack of infrastructure? Do you think dockless bike sharing systems could avoid the piles of bikes if cities simply had designated spaces to park them? For instance, I have no faith that drivers could manage to reasonably park cars in a parking lot that had no lines painted on it.