Ofo, one of a host of Chinese start-ups hoping to do for bikes what Uber did for taxis, has chosen Cambridge for its first foray into Europe, a trial of which launched without fanfare this week.
Chinese cities have seen hundreds of thousands of these ‘dockless’ bikes hit its streets, that now have tens of millions of regular users.
Each bike has a unique number which, when tapped into a smartphone app, generates a code that the rider uses to unlock the bike. Like most bike share systems, it costs a small amount for each ride – initially 50p per half hour. The key selling point that Ofo hopes will differentiate it from most schemes, including London’s, is that there are no docks. At the end of the ride the bike can be left against any fence or lamppost anywhere in the city, ready for the next user to find it.
Many Chinese city centres are inundated with these bikes, meaning riders never have to go far to find one. Ofo and its competitors hope to make them just as ubiquitous in the UK.
The only problem at present: hunting one down. The initial launch is a mere 20 gaudy bikes, yellow needles in the bike haystack of a two-wheeled city like Cambridge.
A man with a large beard wheeling a Brompton outside the station seems like a good person to ask. Has he heard about the city’s new cycle hire scheme?
“I was just going to look for them. They’re supposed to be in the bike storage.”
The bearded man is Jim Chisholm, who, as luck would have it, is a member of the Cambridge Cycle Campaign and someone who has cycled in the city for decades. We head up together into the station’s impressive bike parking facility, where he expresses his doubts about the new scheme.
“The last thing we want is for this wonderful new bike park to be occupied by thousands of new bikes. The Labour council leader is very concerned because there’s nothing to stop them being dumped where it’s inconvenient.”