Three major cycle-sharing companies have pulled out of Britain’s cities in just over a year. Can the schemes ever be sustainable?
Fri 22 Feb 2019
Not so long ago, Chinese bike-sharing company ofo was planning to put 150,000 of its distinctive yellow bikes on London streets. Buoyed by $2bn of venture capital funding, ofo was going to “optimise city resources” and “save public space”.
Mobike, another Chinese start-up and ofo’s main competitor, was also apparently in the business of tech-altruism. Its journey data would provide “invaluable insights” for local planning departments.
But in January, ofo followed oBike and Urbo to become the third dockless operator to withdraw from Britain in just over a year.
New data gathered by Oliver O’Brien, an academic at UCL’s Consumer Data Research Centre, shows that the four major dockless operators covered an area of 617 sq km during the peak competition period in July 2018. Of those four, only Mobike remains, and its operating areas have shrunk, to a total of around 37sq km. Yobike operates a smaller dockless scheme in Bristol and Southampton which is not captured in the data.
The most dramatic boom and bust was oBike, which put 1,300 bikes in London in July 2017, and withdrew them four months later. Wandsworth council impounded hundreds, complaining the bikes had appeared “without any warning”. In the absence of regulation, operators don’t need to consult councils before launching.
It’s impossible to know the exact number of bikes on the streets. Operators are cagey because of high losses to vandalism and theft. In London, O’Brien’s latest count shows just over 2,100 bikes at the end of January, down from a peak of 5,800.
But Joe Seal-Driver, a Trustee of CoMo UK, a trade body which represents shared mobility firms, says dockless isn’t dead.
“The industry’s taken a breath, there’s been a pause in the expansion of bike services. But you’ve got new operators coming through. The fact that we’ve not seen a model with hundreds of thousands of bikes running for years in the UK yet doesn’t testify to [failure].”
Steve Milton, Mobike’s head of growth and PR in Europe, said the company had learned to pick its battles. “Many cities across Europe want bike sharing, while others just put the shutters down.
“Do we really want to fight that? Or do we just want to go where people actually want us? For 2019, our focus is building a sustainable business.”