Taiwan is home to an alphabet soup of bike-sharing schemes with the government-backed YouBike in Taipei and New Taipei City, iBike in Taichung, T-Bike in Tainan and C-Bike in Kaohsiung, all of which use docking stations. Then there are the newer, privately funded “dockless” bike share schemes, most notably Singapore-based oBike and VBikes from the US.
While dockless bicycles allow riders greater freedom and convenience, they also come with drawbacks. The uncontrolled nature of the technology means that there is nothing to prevent illegally parked bikes from congesting streets and sidewalks.
With no fixed drop-off points, bicycles are strewn around cities and, as a result, many are in a poor state of repair. Having effectively let the situation freewheel since dockless bike-sharing companies entered Taiwan last year, local governments now need to get a firm grip on the situation.
Pay-as-you-go dockless bicycles are hired through apps that display the location of available bikes on a map on a user’s phone. Users unlock bikes using QR codes and relock them when done, without needing to locate a docking station.
Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) last year predicted that YouBike would be “wiped out” by oBike due to the greater freedom and convenience of dockless bikes.
Indeed, oBike’s progress seems unstoppable.
In April, oBike Taiwan announced it had reached 1 million Taiwanese members a year after commencing operations in Taipei by unleashing 8,000 bicycles on the city. It has a presence in 14 cities nationwide.
Meanwhile, competitor VBikes, which commenced trial operations in Yilan County and Kaohsiung at the end of last year, in April announced that it was pulling out of the Taiwanese market entirely, leaving the road open for oBike.
That company has already had several run-ins with local governments about the illegal parking of its bikes and Yilan Mayor Chiang Tsung-yuan (江聰淵) has started confiscating illegally parked oBikes.
In Taipei, there was already a chronic shortage of parking spaces for cars and scooters. The situation has now become much worse, with oBikes often commandeering parking spots designed for larger motorbikes. Share bikes can often be seen abandoned willy-nilly, while it is not uncommon to see the odd bumble bee-liveried oBike flung on its side in the road or even tossed into a flowerbed.
The problem is not limited to Taiwan. In Australia, the Melbourne City Council last year declared oBikes “visual pollution” and began impounding them after they were found left in trees and parks, on top of toilet blocks and even dumped in the Yarra River. In London, oBike has been accused of “littering” the capital’s streets after flooding local boroughs with bikes.
It appears that oBike is emulating Uber’s “disruptive” business model: exploiting gaps in local regulations, flooding cities with its vehicles and dealing with local authorities later. As the company is effectively unregulated, what incentives are built into oBike’s business model to ensure that users take good care of bikes and drop them off at appropriate locations?
Perhaps the company does not care, so long as it keeps adding enough members to its user base across the 24 countries in which it currently operates to keep the show on the road and investors happy.
While competition and innovation are healthy and should be supported, local governments must ensure that the dockless bicycle market is properly regulated so that share bikes are maintained to a safe standard and other road users and pedestrians are not unduly inconvenienced.
It is time local authorities got a handle on the situation before it spirals into chaos.
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