By Alec Smart
There are many benefits to the much-maligned brightly coloured rental bicycles strewn everywhere. They’re cheap, reliable, convenient and useful if you need to commute a short, relatively flat distance in an area where parking is limited and public transport expensive.
They also reduce traffic congestion, encourage people to exercise and are a great substitute if you wish to avoid leaving your own bicycle somewhere vulnerable to theft.
They’re especially popular among tourists and beach-bound backpackers.
And yet, loathe or hate them, it appears Australians prefer to ruin rather than ride these machines, and otherwise won’t touch them with a barge pole.
Although technically, that’s incorrect, because contractors on barges in Melbourne have retrieved hundreds of them hurled unwanted into the Yarra River. In April this year another 80 were fished out of the tidal estuary along a six-kilometre stretch around the city and docklands.
“Some from the lower river were encrusted with worms, mussels, and other marine creatures,” said coordinator Andrew Kelly, from cleanup crew Yarra River Keepers Association. “One even had a large oyster attached to the seat!’’
Here in Sydney, dumped rental bikes are frequently exposed at low tide rusting in mud along the Alexandra Canal and Cooks River, and there are countless photos on social media of them hanging from trees or piled up in parks, their wheels typically buckled.
Until recently there were five rental bicycle companies operating in Sydney: oBike, Ofo, ReddyGo, Mobike and Riide. Unlike traditional hire bicycles, which must be returned to a dock after use, ‘dockless’ rental bikes are unlocked by a mobile phone app and can be left at their destination.
This means users can effectively abandon them anywhere.
Although only launched in mid 2017, within weeks of their arrival the bikes began piling up in popular tourist spots, clogging footpaths and beaches and creating a trip hazard for the visually impaired.
By August Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority rangers began impounding them.
In October, Inner West Council Mayor Darcy Byrne led calls for a ‘consistent regulatory framework across the metropolitan area.’
“Allowing a free-for-all with no allocated parking or protections for residents will only result in the industry losing popularity and patronage,” he declared.
In January 2018 a coalition of six Sydney councils – Canada Bay, City of Sydney, Inner West, Randwick, Waverley, and Woollahra – imposed strict new guidelines to ensure the rental companies met a set of regulations to reduce the number of abandoned bicycles.
Waverley Mayor John Wakefield then called on the New South Wales Government to close a legislative loophole that allows share bike companies to operate without a permit.
In March 2018, Waverley Council undertook two major collections of damaged, non-operational bicycles in their jurisdiction.
“A total of 107 bikes were impounded,” a spokesperson informed City Hub, “of which 60 were collected by dockless bike share operators Ofo and Mobike, and impounding fees were paid. A total of 47 impounded bikes belonging to Obike and Reddygo remained unclaimed.”
This robust administration probably precipitated the end of rental bicycles’ anarchic reign.
In July this year, two of Australia’s main players, Chinese-founded Ofo – the ubiquitous canary-yellow brand – and its Australian rival ReddyGo – candy red – announced their intentions to abandon business here.
Ofo spokesperson Ben Shipley issued a statement saying, “Ofo will wind-down operations in Adelaide and Sydney during the next 60 days… Ofo will begin to remove bikes from cities and consolidate them to our warehouses.”
ReddyGo went one step further and offered to give away their bikes to loyal customers, if they collected before July 20: “If you do not wish to wait for restructuring process and wish to terminate your membership, we are happy to offer you and a friend a free bike each (total two bikes) as a sign of our gratitude for your loyalty and support.”
Ofo, one of the world’s most successful bike-share companies in a saturated market, is in jeopardy. The Beijing-based bicycle behemoth reached its peak in 2017 when it deployed over 10 million bicycles in 20 countries and 250 cities. The company was valued around $2 billion, leasing bikes to over 62.7 million monthly users.
In July 2018 Ofo’s CEO, Dai Wei, compared their financial crisis to WWII Britain’s ‘Darkest Hour’ when citizens faced invasion and starvation. In a massive restructuring Ofo has scaled down significantly to consolidate their operations in cities more responsive to bicycle hire than Australia.
Australia has one of the poorest uptakes for rental bicycles; share bikes in Sydney are used, on average, 0.3 times per day, compared to 2-6 trips per day in other countries.
Unlike Ofo, which can retreat to their Beijing base, ReddyGo has limited options. Hundreds of bicycles still languor at their Alexandria depot, many unused since ReddyGo’s Sydney launch in July 2017 with a promise of ‘6000 bicycles by Xmas’. City Hub visited the compound and found dozens of bikes in states of disrepair and dismemberment.
Perhaps they’re destined for ‘bicycle graveyards’ in China, where millions of unwanted machines are rusting, resembling fields of flowers revealed in surprisingly beautiful aerial photos.
Despite this, ReddyGo, founded by UTS graduate Donald Tang and backed by a large Chinese app developer, still offers bikes for $1.99 per half hour hire. The ReddyGo app remains available to download online, where many frustrated users complain about a myriad of issues.
City of Sydney Council is skeptical about ReddyGo’s imminent departure. A spokesperson told City Hub, “We haven’t heard that ReddyGo is leaving Sydney. The media reported this following oBike announcing their departure from Melbourne. As far as we know they are still operating. You will need to check with them directly what their plans are.”
ReddyGo didn’t respond to repeat requests from City Hub to comment.