It’s hard to be opposed to the idea of people cycling more, especially for ordinary urban chores. It’s good for the environment, it’s good for health, it’s good for communities, it helps reduce dependence on cars and it’s generally a virtuous thing to do. So I viewed with interest the appearance on Melbourne’s streets of hundreds of bright yellow shared “O-Bikes”.
O-Bike is a bike-share program originating in Singapore. It’s a competitor to Melbourne’s indigenous blue-painted share program which has been plagued with problems and, I suspect, low utilisation. O-Bike is up and running in several cities around the world and claims impressive utilisation in Singapore itself.
The main selling point of O-Bike is that the bikes self-lock and that you can leave them basically anywhere. There’s no need to find a docking station – just unlock one with your phone, ride it, and then lock it again when you get where you’re going. It saves on infrastructure, and the bikes will tend to follow the movements of the people they are meant to serve.
Naturally I was interested, so I thought I’d give it a try. One day last week I happened to be at one end of the CBD and I needed to get to another. Ten minutes of cycling for $1.99 seemed pretty reasonable. So I downloaded the app and looked for a ride.
I didn’t have to go far. These things are like locusts, but they consume footpaths rather than crops. I didn’t even need to fire up the app to find one because I could see about a dozen from where I stood on a street corner.
The first one didn’t have a helmet. Victorian law mandates helmet use, and given that I work in emergency medicine, this seems very sensible. The blue bikes have a complicated system where you have to buy a helmet from a shop, but O-Bike have just given up and attached helmets to each bike’s locking mechanism. But not this one – whether someone forgot, or just pinched it, I don’t know.
So I found another. This one seemed to have all the bits intact, so I unlocked it, put on my helmet and prepared to ride.
Melbourne is a fairly flat city, and so should be perfect for cycling. That’s been my experience riding my own bikes – you can get around pretty easily without working too hard.
Sadly O-Bike seem to have done everything in their power to make these bikes difficult to use. I don’t know whether it’s poor quality components, or whether each bike has to be extra robust, or whether there’s a stonking great dynamo inside the frame, but this bike was an absolute nightmare to ride. After one block up a modest hill I was puffing and panting. After two I was ready to take a break. I’m not unfit, and I’m not inexperienced bike-wise, so this seemed very hard.
I tried to adjust the seat to give myself a more advantageous riding position. I yanked the quick-release lever. Nothing. Sticky? Welded shut? rusted? I dunno, but I couldn’t shift it. I also confirmed what I’d noticed while riding – that the handlebar was wonky relative to the wheels. I had to turn the handlebar about 15 degrees to the side to go in a straight line. I couldn’t straighten that up either, despite my best efforts.
I got back on my horribly munted steed and suffered for a few more blocks. By the time I got where I was going, I couldn’t even be bothered crossing the road to get to my destination, so I just locked it and walked away.
I wanted to like O-Bike, I really did. The concept is great and the intention is impeccable. But my god the bikes are shit. There is no way they’re going to attract the casual cyclist looking to run a few errands, they’re just way too hard to ride. And as for getting non-cyclists on board? Forget about it. How on earth do people do this in humid Singapore? They’d combust from the effort inside a block, surely?
I hope O-Bike can improve their gear, because I think their model definitely has promise. Bikes are great, and more people should be riding. But this over-engineered monstrosity isn’t the way.