Can Lessons Be Learned From Vandalism of Dockless Bike Sharing Bicycles?

Gobee bikes in a row

Jon Worth / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

After hopeful reports of bike sharing programs on the rise, it appears that the concept may come crashing down under the hashtag #incivility.

In the most recent reports, bike sharing company has pulled out of Paris after 60% of the fleet has been stolen, vandalized, or "privatized" (apparently the practice of renting the bike on a permanent basis, thereby removing it from the cosharing space) and 6400 repair calls were required in the first months of the service.

This is not an isolated case, as the company has shut down officially or more or less disappeared in the French cities of Lille and Reims, pulled out of Brussels in Belgium, and shut down their ventures into Italy - all only short months after joyously announcing the new cosharing service.

And Gobee is not alone. Reports of thousands of bikes vandalized have also featured the yellow-framed bikes by Oto. Although Mobike remains optimistic, inviting twitter followers to guess where their next big roll-out will appear this week, the many orange and grey bicycles pictured in the canal in this tweet clearly belong to their fleet:

Is this wanton, unavoidable vandalism?

...or are there lessons to be learned by new and existing bike sharing ventures from the streams of social commentary about bike sharing? Social media may provoke vandals, but it also offers many clues to the widespread dissatisfaction with the bike sharing services. Complaints in the discussion streams include:

  • Heavy bicycles that have gearing, often single-gear, that exhausts the rider.
  • In spite of repair services set up by the providers, lack of maintenance, such as tire inflation and chain oiling, remains an issue; perhaps the repair services are too busy responding to vandalism to manage the basics.
  • Users complain that a bike could not be parked and blocked from use when the renter steps off for a brief stop in their rounds.
  • Charges continue to pile up on the accounts of users that found the lock was broken at the end of their ride, although they will presumably be compensated by the program.
  • Bike fit is mentioned by users, but perhaps many missed the companies' hints on how to adjust seat height on their rentals, which would provide some relief if not a professional racing fit.
  • Some go so far as to complain the bike sharing is an evil conspiracy by the United Nations.

The protests are not limited to the bicycle renters either. Due to their free-standing locking systems, the dockless bikes are not put away in places designed for bicycle parking, but instead litter the sidewalks and streets, blocking the route for the handicapped and generally annoying the public at large. Our own Lloyd Alter has taken on these arguments, see for example his reference to the "dockless cars" blocking the paths of pedestrians.

Ironically, users report bikes that seemed difficult to locate when needed suddenly appear all over the streets just after the programs pull out of town. This backlash arises when the networked unlocking terminates on the "privatized" bikes, which are then dumped back on the streets to become a problem for the municipal authorities.

So what can be done to save bike sharing?

Well, first of all, let's try to be a bit more civilized. We cannot count on a bicycle batman to control the streets of our cities, so we all need to work together to respect communal property and discourage those who don't share that commitment to community.

But that is like telling people to diet and exercise for a healthier society. What will more likely work needs to be integrated into the bike sharing program concept. Here we need to get creative.

Could bike sharing be micro-financed so that every local bike shop could put out a couple of rentals? And the bike sharing ap converted from a company-specific tool to a shared application allowing users to pick up a bike at any shop and drop it back at any other shop? Such a scheme would make the bikes locally owned, and perhaps therefore more respected. It would put every bike at a natural point of maintenance and leverage the downtime in the local shops for good use.

Could we dump the massive investment in heavy, expensive fleet bicycles in favor of making used or cheaper bikes available. The current models appear intended to prevent theft and promote advertising - but the theft deterrent seems not to work and the shared image may serve to promote vandalism as backlash against perceived global enemies or simply because the brand can be targeted on social media. Cheaper bikes could also make the "shrink" (the risk management term for the inevitable theft and damage that arises in any consumer business) easier for the investment model to tolerate.

Pricing needs consideration as well. The large degree of "privatization," allegedly involving 50% of the Gobee bikes, suggests that prices are too low, making "leasing" the bike permanently too attractive. But high prices deter participants and reduce the benefits of the program. Perhaps a staggered pricing model could work: ideally free for 15 minutes, then cheap for another couple fractions of an hour, with prices shooting up thereafter to keep the "sharing" in the bike-sharing model.

Whatever the case, bike sharing offers one of the best value sustainable business concepts available. In theory, this should be a success story of magnificent proportions. We should not, and cannot, let it become a tragedy of the commons.