oBike London – First Impressions

Jo Wood

Today saw the launch of oBike in London – a new public bicycle hire scheme that, depending on your outlook, complements or competes with ‘Boris bikes’ launched in 2010. The original scheme has provided a wealth of data on urban bicycle movement that the giCentre has made much of. It is still very early days so no news to report on visualization of the oBike scheme, but I thought I would at least have a test ride on its launch day.

Remotely activated bike lock

Unlike the more common European public bike share schemes, oBikes do not use docking stations. Instead, bikes have an inbuilt rear wheel lock that is opened via a smartphone app. This approach, which is far more common in China and Singapore (where oBike originates) has several advantages, not least the comparatively low startup and expansion costs. Bikes can be picked up and left almost anywhere. oBike are keen to stress that bikes should only be left in ‘designated public bike-parking areas’ although it is not clear exactly what this means. Some of the publicity photos from oBike show them left at Santander docking stations – something I imagine TfL will not be too happy about. And given the bikes themselves should not be locked to any external street furniture, is ‘near’ a public Sheffield stand sufficient? Time will tell where people choose to leave the bikes. From an analytical point of view, the in-built GPS and greater freedom of destination points offers exciting opportunities for mapping and analyzing urban bicycle movement patterns.

The Good

To use a bike you need to install the oBike app on a mobile device equipped with bluethooth (Android or iOS). This was pain free and the app itself is reasonably intuitive. It shows a scrollable map with the locations of currently available bikes.

Before renting a bike for the first time you also need to set up an account linked to a debit/credit card in order to make payments. This includes a one-off deposit (£29 during July, otherwise £49). Rides themselves are charged at a flat rate of 50 pence per half hour although during the launch month of July, rides are free. There are glimpses of an intriguing charging model where users can earn ‘credits’ for making journeys, reporting vandalized bikes and recommending friends. It opens up the possibility of future incentives for ‘redistribution’ rides to take bikes from areas of low demand to those of high demand. Interestingly, antisocial behavior such as leaving the bike in an inaccessible area can result in deducted credits and ultimately a higher cost of £5 per half hour for serial offenders.

Finding a bike from the map screen proved no problem as on launch day at least, most were concentrated in the Whitechapel / Bethnal Green area. Once you’ve located one of the distinctive yellow bikes it is simply a matter of ensuring your phone has Bluetooth enabled and scanning the QR code on the bike via the app to release the bike lock. For me this worked first time, although the time from scanning to the lock releasing was about 20 seconds so initially I wasn’t sure if I was meant to do anything in the meantime (apparently not).

Compared to the credit-card purchase of a Santander bike, this was more convenient, but its future success will depend on the numbers and distribution of bikes. On the day of the launch there were a few hundred bikes available concentrated in East central London but oBike claim that they will be adding around ‘50% more’ to the current London public bike hire numbers, which equates to around another 6000 bikes. How widely these will become distributed around London and even beyond will be interesting to watch.

The Bad

The bikes themselves are heavy, although not obviously heavier than existing Santander bikes. They do though have noticeably more drag. Whether this is because the internal dynamo has to power the GPS and internal hardware or just poor components I’m not sure. I am a reasonably strong rider, but pulling away from traffic lights was hard work and made me feel more vulnerable among accelerating traffic than I normally do on a bike. The bikes do not have any gears, so you will notice even the slightest incline. These are not bikes for a fast or hilly ride.

The major problem I had riding though was that the saddle was too low. The seat post is adjustable, but even at its highest position this was a good 4 to 6 cms too low for me (and I am not particularly tall at 180cm). The bike was supposedly ‘large’, but really far too short for a good third of the adult population. This is almost a deal-breaker for me – I could soon feel pain in my knees after only a couple of km of riding.

Despite riding a bike on launch day I was none too impressed with the quality of the bike setup. The tyres are solid, so will not have puncture problems, but my front tyre didn’t feel correctly bedded on the rim so would ‘bump’ every revolution. This was more inconvenient than dangerous, but it does put into question the quality of the maintenance checking.



The Dangerous

Misaligned fork and bars

Of greater concern were the handlebars, which were not correctly aligned the front forks. The wheel direction was a few degrees off to the right. Perhaps I was unlucky with my bike selection, but the fact the bikes can even be placed in this state is worrying. There are also exposed brake cables which may be vulnerable to malicious tampering (in contrast to the Santander bikes which are pretty much tamper-proof).

But my major concern with the current design is with the seat post. In an effort to raise the saddle to something approximating a comfortable ride I was easily able to (unintentionally) remove the entire seat post from the frame. Not only was the post much shorter than I had expected, but there was really nothing in the design to prevent the post being set with a dangerously small overlap with the enclosing frame. There appears to be a small nipple near its base that could prevent the post being raised beyond its safe maximum, but it had either sheared off already or was inadequate for the job. This aspect of the design needs reworking (and a longer seat post please!).

The Future

Overall, dockless public bike hire schemes offer some really exciting possibilities for urban cycling and it will be interesting to see how the oBike scheme develops and is used over the coming months and years. As an academic interested in patterns of movement by bicycle I think dockless, GPS-enabled bikes offer the prospect of an invaluable source of data on cycling behaviour as well as the possibility of personalised data feedback (e.g. routes taken) and costing models. oBike are off to a good start with their hiring and locking system that is smoothly integrated with their app, but they do need to work on the design of the bikes if they want to truly change cycle culture in the UK.