Photo Southern Courier: bikes. Coogee, SydneyA month or so back I suddenly noticed these yellow bikes sprinkled around the area where I live. They literally just appeared. One day they were absent, the next day they were everywhere just sitting on the pavement Each had a helmet attached in some way; safety helmets are presently obligatory in Australia. A little later, a red variety appeared.
Over the next few weeks, I saw them spread around adjoining streets, just parked on the footpath or leaning against a power-pole or a bus shelter. I even saw some Asian students from the University actually riding them.
Investigating, I found that they came from two companies, obike and Ready Go. The dockless business model was a simple one. To use the bike, you needed to download an app and pay a small deposit. Then you could select a bike, use the app to communicate with the company. They would send a signal unlocking the bike. When you reached your destination, you parked and locked the bike there. You were then charged a small fee for the time used. The GPS function on the bike allowed the companies to track the bikes.
I found the concept attractive, somehow beguiling. It would be nice to hop on a bike and go for a ride or pick one up at the shopping centre and use it to bring my shopping home without worrying about the hassle of actually owning a bike.
When I went to Copenhagen on my first visit to see eldest I saw a real bike culture of a type I hadn't seen since childhood. I became enamored with the idea, although I wasn't blind to the practical realities in Australia with its differing geography, streetscape and regulatory landscape that effectively discourages bikes.
I was curious as whether she she had actually ridden much since that first wobbly start. She has been back in Australia briefly, so at dinner last night I asked her. She has indeed kept biking, pedaling most days to work, a process that takes less time than public transport.
Copenhagen is different to Australia. Its flatter, you can apparently ride without a safety helmet, while bikes are parked everywhere. There are problems with bike parking and abandoned bikes, but they appear relatively minor.
In the weeks after I first saw the new bikes, they spread into the side streets. I saw bikes just dropped on the nature strips. I saw at least one case of a bike being vandalised as a person smashed the lock. I didn't know what was happening, it was just somebody banging at the bike, until he got on and rode away. Walking over to where the bike had been, I found the smashed lock on the ground.
I also noticed that the bike helmets were vanishing, presumably stolen, making them illegal to ride. I had wondered on this once once I saw the helmets loosely attached to the bike.
Photo Southern Courier: bikes. Coogee, SydneyBikes concentrated in spots.It's a downhill run from Randwick to Coogee. The cost of bike hire is cheaper than the bus. People would take a bike down and then take a bus back, leaving a growing concentration of bikes at the Coogee end.
I saw an increasing number of media stories about problems. This is one example, this a second. Councils (and not just in Sydney) started to become very concerned.about dumped and sometimes vandalised bikes as well as bike clutter, seeking new regulations and controls.
Today when I went for my walk I saw only three obikes, two vandalised. I really would like the obike system to succeed, although the odds are against it. It requires too many cultural, infrastructural and institutional changes.