ofo shows that bike hire schemes don't have to turn into a tragedy of the commons

ofo bikes in sheffield
© ofo bikes in Sheffield

If you engage the cycling community and don't just dump a pile of bikes into the streets, it can work.

Good for ofo, for not calling themselves a bike share scheme as everyone does, but for telling us that "dockless bike hire company ofo celebrates a successful launch in Sheffield - its biggest outside London so far in the UK." Bike hire is a much more accurate description because that is what you do -- rent a bike for 50p per half hour. Also unlike other bike hire companies, it is releasing data about how their bikes are being used, which is uncommon in the cut-throat business.

Over 28,000 trips have been made since it launched in Sheffield in January, with an increase of 20 percent in February. And this is in seriously crappy weather.

Joseph Seal-Driver, ofo’s general manager for the UK & Ireland, said: “The initial uptake in Sheffield has been nothing short of fantastic. We are pleased to see usage numbers grow each month, and as the days get longer and the weather improves, we expect to see more and more Sheffield residents adopting ofo bikes as their go-to mode of transport”

ofo time of day© ofo

What is also interesting is the time of use; they are not just commuters but people using it to get around town mid-day.

There have been 6,220 unique users in Sheffield up to the 11th of February, with more signing up every day. Unusually, the majority of the trips have taken place between 3pm and 5pm each day, proving that ofo users are not limited to commuters. Around 550 trips are made each morning between 7am and 9am, rising to a peak of around 1,100 between 3pm and 5pm.

In a recent post, Christine addressed the problems of vandalism of dockless bike share schemes; it reminds us of the Tragedy of the Commons, described in the Guardian as “the economic theory that individuals using a shared resource often act according to their own interests and to the detriment of the shared resource…With bikes literally littering the street, riders become less mindful of how they treat the bikes and where they leave them when there is always another to pick up."

Ofo appears to be mitigating the problem by getting local buy-in by engaging with the cycling community, and working with local bike shops to maintain its fleet. It is apparently working; I asked Matthew Sparkes, their public relations manager who is known to TreeHugger, and he told us:

We've had minimal vandalism, which was always to be expected. Our bikes have a range of security features such as a loud alarm that sounds if you try to move the bike without hiring it.

Dockless bike hire schemes are new, and there are going to be teething pains. But if they are done right, and if people get used to them, I suspect most of the problems will go away. Ofo isn't just dumping a bunch of bikes on the street, but is "providing Bikeability training in the city to encourage new and lapsed riders to try the scheme and ride more often."

sheffield map© ofo

The average trip is only 1.4 km (.87 miles) and 14 minutes, and most trips have been focused on the city center, with the university campuses getting the most traffic. "However, the suburbs of Broomhill, Nether Edge and Walkley remain popular end points, hinting at a large usage from Sheffield’s student population." This could be displacing short transit or taxi trips, or just being faster and more convenient than walking; that would be interesting data to have.

Wherever the riders come from, I suspect that dockless bike hire is going to be a very big deal. As I noted in my previous post on this subject:

Felix Salmon writes that “Bikes plus smartphones, then, might just be enough to usher in a new golden age for cities.” The dockless bike share is an ingenious combination of 19th and 21st century technology that just might be what we are looking for.

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