For the past half year, I’ve been a regular user of Sydney’s three largest bike share programs, Obike, Ofo and Mobike, riding mostly in and around Darling Harbour. Here’s my quick review of each and my prognostication of who’ll win the bikeshare war in the end.
Singapore-based Obike was the first major player in Sydney and I was a regular user for a large part of last year. First ride deposit is $69 and rides cost $2/30 min, although a steady stream of promotions means that you’re unlikely to have to pay either.
Bike (♥♥♥): Obike’s bicycles are usable, but distinctly unexciting. The seat is low and can’t be extended very far, making them quite painful to use if you’re tall. To add insult to injury the adjustment mechanism is flaky, meaning the seat often twists or slowly sinks as you ride. The bike is kind of heavy and there are no gears, which is not great in Sydney’s hilly terrain.
App (♥♥): The Obike app, at least on Android, fails at its basic tasks: it’s remarkably bad at finding bikes, with the map being essentially useless, and it’s even worse at unlocking bikes, to the point that around 1/3 of my attempts fail. Add in mangled English and nonexistent support, and it’s a real pain to use.
Availability (♥♥): At least in my neck of the woods, Obikes are getting increasingly hard to find, and when you do find one…
Maintenance (Ø): This is Obike’s Achilles heel. Horribly mangled Obikes, with wheels bent, seats missing etc are a common sight in Sydney, while Obike helmets are an endangered species. The locking mechanism is also brittle, with the pin missing on half the bikes and the locking bar itself bent out of shape on the other half. All this means that it’s increasingly rare to see a usable Obike, and near-miraculous to find one that’s both in shape and has a helmet attached.
Verdict: Doomed. So in December, despite Obike frantically flinging free credits in my direction with absurd promotions (“take three free rides and we’ll give you ten free rides!”), I gave up completely and got my deposit refunded. It’s a matter of time before they give up too.
Ofo, originally from Beijing, was the second player in Sydney. A deposit is not required and while rides would normally be $1/30 min, they are offering unlimited free rides until the end of February.
Bike (♥♥♥♥♥): Ofo has, by a long shot, the best bikes in the game. Each bike has three gears, so they’re good on both hills and flats, and the seat can be extended far enough to make biking rather pleasant even if you’re tall.
App (♥♥♥♥): Ofo’s app won’t win any awards, but unlike Obike it’s solid: the bike unlocks every single time like clockwork. There are some minor UI glitches — for example, ticking a broken pedal when reporting damage throws errors — but overall it gets the job done well. One mildly annoying nit: the bar code under the seat is kinda small and at least my phone’s camera has a hard time focusing on it to scan.
Availability (♥♥♥): Ofos are pretty ubiquitous, although not quite as common as our next competitor.
Maintenance (♥♥♥): Ofo’s bikes are noticeably sturdier than Obike’s, and it’s rare to see a wrecked Ofo. They seem to get moved around pretty regularly and also restocked with new helmets on occasion, although this seems to be going slowly downhill.
Verdict: My favorite. If there’s an Ofo around, I’ll take it, and I hope they’re going to survive, although odds are they will be crushed by the juggernaut that is…
Mobike, also from Beijing, is the world’s largest bike share company. Only the fourth entrant to the Sydney bike share market, they’ve come in with a bang and have the largest fleet at the moment. No deposit is required and there’s a 7-day free trial, after which rides start from $1.20/30 min.
Bike (♥♥): Mobikes are built like tanks: they’re super heavy and clunky, but indestructible. Even the gear chain is entirely encased in a solid block of aluminium. The obvious flip side is that pedalling one of these monsters up a hill, or really even a slight incline, involves a Tour de France -level workout to your quads, which isn’t helped by the cramped geometry.
App (♥♥♥): For a long time Mobike’s app scored a solid zero, because it would crash every time I tried to open it. They finally fixed that glitch a few weeks ago, and now it’s mostly usable. Unlocking is flaky, but whereas Obikes flake out and refuse to physically unlock, Mobike will release the lock bar on the bike and the app will then tell you “unlocking failed”. Free ride for the win? At the end, after you lock, the app will first tell you off for “Over-charged” and threaten to freeze your account, only to suddenly remember that you’re in free trial and everything’s actually copacetic.
Availability (♥♥♥♥♥): Mobikes are everywhere. Seriously, at one point you couldn’t throw a rock in Darling Harbour without hitting three Mobikes.
Maintenance (♥♥♥♥): This is the killer feature of being built like a brick shithouse: Mobikes can take an awful lot of punishment and basically don’t need maintenance. I’m docking one heart only because helmets are becoming increasingly rare for these guys too.
Verdict: The likeliest survivor. They’re everywhere, and they just work. It’s hard to compete with that, especially given the rate at which aggro morons seem to take pleasure in wrecking their competitors’ bikes.
Reddy Go was the first entrant in Sydney, but with $99 deposits, $2 rides and a non-existent fleet, why bother? And I’ve seen a couple of EarthBikes around Rhodes, but they don’t really even seem to be trying to compete.
And the winner is… bureaucracy.
Dockless bike sharing may be a killer app, but NSW’s absurd helmet laws are the killer app killer. In addition to the “yuck” factor of sharing headgear with random strangers, it’s getting really difficult to find a bike of your preferred brand that has a helmet attached. While quite many people choose to ride without one, the prospect of a $330 fine is going to deter a lot more people. It’s a huge logistical challenge for bike share companies too: even when bought in bulk, the cost of delivering helmets alone will destroy profit margins, no matter how indestructible the bike.
The other catch is that all bike share companies in Sydney are still operating under the “lose money on every sale, but make it up in volume” business model, but while I’ve thoroughly enjoyed not paying a cent thanks to all the promos, eventually the party will stop. Perhaps the helmets will stop disappearing quite so quickly when people actually need to pay for their rides, but unless the rideshare companies can work out a way to verify that the helmet has been returned, this seems unlikely to staunch the bleeding.
While I’m at it, a tangent: I’ve often heard the claim that the reason the bikes are free is because the companies are spying on you and can mint millions with the gathered data. Consider this: Facebook aka Instagram aka Whatsapp knows everything about you, and this is worth about $6/year (revenue, not profit). The three bike share programs, on the other hand, know that I tend to bike from Town Hall to Pyrmont in the mornings and back in the evenings. How many helmets do you think they can buy with that info? Even if they’re being evil and tracking your every move when you’re not using the app? (Which you can disable.)
The final unsolved problem is parking. Both Ofo and Mobike half-heartedly try to enforce allowed parking, but enforcement is at best inconsistent and often absurd: Mobike has let me lock a bike and then told me off for doing it, and Ofo has told me I can’t take away a bike parked at a public bike stand because it’s been reported as badly parked.
If bike sharing is ever going to be a first-class citizen for transport in Sydney, the council and state will need to relax the helmet laws, allow cycling on footpaths and set up clearly marked designated areas for parking them in the city center. I’m not holding my breath.