You most likely have heard of Santander Cycles although you may know then as Boris Bikes or even Barclays Bikes after the previous sponsor. They're probably the most well known on-demand cycle hire scheme in the UK although other cities are certainly catching up. The scheme is based around a network of docking stations in central London, you have to return the bikes to a free space in one of the docks when finished with them. South East London is poorly served by docking stations as south of the river they don't go much further than Tower Bridge, but north of the river they continue eastwards until the Olympic Park in Stratford.

When I visited Bristol last week (18-19 July 2017) on a business trip I was surprised to see hire bikes around the city that didn't require docks. The bikes were equipped with their own locks and you locked them to a regular cycle parking space when you had finished with them. The scheme seemed popular with people taking bikes regularly and they were seen in many places around the city. As a visitor the scheme appeared to be a success. A quick search on the local news sites for Bristol have shown that the scheme has had its fair share of vandalism problems and the cable locks to attach the bikes to the racks were only recently added. Originally the only lock on the bike was a lock on the rear wheels.

That scheme was called YoBike, so I was surprised and delighted that a similar scheme called oBike (the one in Manchester is MoBike, not too much originality in the naming front) when I got back to London. There was a lot of bikes placed in convenient locations around near where I worked. I decided to give the scheme a try and I was happy to find out all rides in July are free. You have to pay a deposit which is refundable at any time (assuming you've not lost or deliberately damaged a bike or caused the company to have to pay a fine by parking in an unsuitable location) this is currently a reduced rate of £29 but this will rise in August.

So last week all was well, plenty of bikes and the app helped you locate them. I decided to take one for a ride on Friday and I'll admit being a single speed bike it felt like you were pedalling fast and going slow. It did have the advantage that I was not restricted to the docking station area meaning I could cycle in South East London and then leave the bike in a parking area when finished.

One thing I noticed about these bikes was they didn't have the cable locks to attach the bike to the parking stand like their Bristol counterparts, they were freestanding and only had the wheel lock. I thought the issue of theft would have been considered before these bikes were rolled out, so perhaps there was an alarm if you tried to move the bike too far when it was locked. It appears that's not the case as a lot of bikes now seem to have gone missing. There was good availability Friday last week and even Monday this week (the last time I managed to hire one) then since that point there seems to be loads of bikes still showing on the map but when you visit the area they're nowhere to be seen. I'm not sure the reason for this, perhaps there's simply an error with their data which is showing phantom bikes or have burglars/vandals found out how to remove the GPS tracking device and thrown them in nearby bushes/bins? Then again it might just be something as simple as the app records the location when the bike was last dropped off so if it's stolen then the location doesn't change.

Whatever the situation it appears the launch has been something of a disaster which is a shame for what is generally a good idea.

I hope oBike don't give up, but I do think they should take a step back, temporarily remove their bikes before any more get damaged or stolen and rethink their approach.

  • The main priority is to ensure the bikes are secured to a parking stand when parked. Although a cable lock like that in Bristol can be relatively easily cut through it does provide some deterrent and will stop things like drunk people throwing them in the river and will ensure users park them properly.
  • Alarms would be useful. Maybe detect if the cable lock is cut or the wheel lock is smashed and sound a loud alarm.
  • Look at weak points on the bike that may be damaged by vandals. The basket looks like it could be a weak point.
  • Work with the local councils to ensure that council workers have the ability to unlock bikes illegally parked, make it clear that any fines imposed by the council for inappropriate parking will be passed onto the user. Make sure the council is aware of the influx in bikes and that any concerns are addressed.
  • Send alerts to users phones if they move too far away from the bike without locking it just in case they're not aware they're still being charged and the bike is in danger of being stolen.
  • Invest a certain percentage of profits in local cycling schemes, whether it's providing more cycle parking or investing in initiatives that improve the roads for cyclists.
  • Make it easier in the app to report when a bike is showing on the map but is not there.

If you want to sign up now for when oBike gets back on its feet you can get £3 in free ride credit by using my affiliate link. I hope after this rough start the scheme will become a success. Dockless cycle hire does have advantages once the drawbacks are sorted out. It gives the user more flexibility and it also means no expensive docking stations need to be rolled out, although I do think the scheme creators need to help invest in additional general purpose cycle parking racks.

^DH