Our cities and towns are facing ever greater problems of pollution and congestion, and we all know more cycling is the answer. We talk about dockless bikes and how anyone with the right know-how can go from start-up to dockless bike operator.
Cities and towns face ever more significant challenges of pollution and congestion. They need some tough solutions. But in many countries, central government is cutting city budgets.
So what can they do?
Dockless bikes are one answer. Users can rent dockless bikes by the hour, and you can pick them up and leave them (responsibly) pretty much anywhere. They are booked and managed by an app on your phone. Better still, they need no budget outlay by city councils, because they are financed by, and managed, by private investment and companies.
It all fits with the idea of ‘Mobility as a Service’ (MaaS) where we don’t own transport but rent it by the hour.
Anyone can set up a dockless bike scheme, from the largest company - like the Chinese company Ofo - to small local firms. Even large corporations like (or are forced) to start small. Ofo, for example, was limited to twenty bikes in Cambridge, UK, but has since expanded.
And city governments tend to be open to multiple operators at the moment. There is no monopoly. Seattle, in the US, for example, has three operators – Spin, Limebike and Ofo.
But if you aren't a big global concern, like Ofo or Mobike, how do you get started? Here is a round-up of eight tips from experienced dockless bike schemes to help you go from start-up to bike operator in days.
Make sure you have a good product. One Australian review called Mobike the ‘Rolls Royce of dockless bikes’ – costing around five times more than its competitors and with a shaft drive and rear disc brakes adding to reliability.
The locking mechanism – at least with Mobike, Limebike and Spin – is through a frame mounted system that you release through the app. When you end the ride, you slide the lever back in place.
Quality matters, as we all know with our own bikes.
And the workability of the app matters too. Are the bikes where the app says it is? Is it reliable? These things matter. One bike sharing system in Seattle went under, argues Tom Fucoloro, author of the Seattle Bike Blog, because the system just didn’t work.
Dockless bike schemes tend to be set up in cities rather than small towns. That’s because big companies are more interested in targeting large urban conurbations.
But it offers an opportunity for providers, argues Shane Connaughton, CEO of Urbo in Dublin, to target smaller cities and towns.
There is no technical reason why towns shouldn’t be interested in dockless bikes, and, Connaughton says, may help councils rework their infrastructure to make them more cycle safe. The key point, says, Jack Song of LimeBike, is that “dockless bikeshare makes sense if there is population density.” That means lots of people in a small space.
There’s lots of money available for dockless schemes right now, from a diverse set of investors. That’s because, like Uber, they offer huge possibilities for data mining. Ofo's biggest investors are Alibaba, an e-commerce corporation, and the venture capital company, DST Global.
But you’d better be good at what you do, argues Song. “To succeed in this field, operations are the key. Operations involves top notch customer service, community relations, and quality of the bikes.”
Building a good relationship with local government and other stakeholders is critical, says Eanna Lalor, Head of Digital and Communications at Urbo:
“At Urbo we believe in open dialogue with local councils from the get go. We do not place a single bike on the streets without having first worked out a detailed policy framework with the applicable councils. This framework can range from an initial number of bikes and scale up plans, to designated parking hubs and geo-fenced zones.”
Local or city governments are important partners in dockless bike schemes because they manage roads, pavements, licenses, refuse. To cut the list short, they are the ones that deal with all local environmental and regulatory issues. You can't do it without their cooperation and support.
And there are considerable benefits to developing good working relationships with councils, as Steve Pyer, Mobike’s UK General Manager, explains: “The opportunity for us is to move quickly, as local authorities are contacting us to inquire about Mobike. Indeed, one recent launch only took five weeks from the first conversation with the local council to launch day!"
It isn’t just about getting on with local government. It’s important to build relationships with stakeholders, such as local business, community, advocate and resident groups, and potential user groups.
Do community education and safety work that will encourage safer cycling and tell potential users about your scheme. Work with schools to design education programmes.
Pyer argues that education is critical: “Initially, people did not fully understand the dockless bike-sharing model and because of that, did not necessarily realise the huge potential of Mobike for people and cities. That meant we had to focus on education on how Mobike works and the value of bike-sharing in the UK.
"Since we launched in Manchester (and London, Newcastle and Oxford since), the general perception is positive. People are now very familiar with how bike-sharing works and communities and cities understand the benefits dockless schemes can have for health improvement, pollution reduction, and infrastructure planning."
Ensure those in the know – transport agencies and technical engineers – are working with you closely to ensure the scheme is working as it should.
Have a set of policies in place to troubleshoot – issues to watch out for are parking, collecting bikes, poor user behaviours and maintenance. Make sure you are constantly analysing and improving your service as potential problems arise. See our article on troubleshooting (add link).
The Platform for European Bicycle Sharing & Systems (PEBSS) has developed the ‘three pillars framework' for operating a dockless bike scheme.
The rider experience is critical. Schemes should have good hardware (bikes) and efficient apps, flexible and accurate drop-off and pick-up points, working with other forms of public transport (the ‘first and last mile' of any journey has shown to work well with dockless schemes), data privacy, and be accessible to residents and visitors.
Public authorities should have effective policies that promote a response to pollution and climate change, social inclusion, sustainability in public resources and ‘not socialising private costs while maximising private profits’ (meaning that local government should not be paying to increase the profits of private companies).
Policy should encourage ‘fair competition’ and offer opportunities for innovation from bike hire companies and a host of other shared mobility systems (such as app development).
It can be as easy as 30 days
Once you’ve got everything in place, setting up a dockless bike scheme can be as smooth as we’d hope your bikes are. There’s no reason why, with your investment, bikes, app and relationships sorted, you can’t get dockless bikes on the streets today.