A dockless bike tragedy


The dockless bike is in retreat, says Sabine Stork. Mobike announced recently that it is considering abandoning UK operations in Manchester due to vandalism and theft problems. The company, which only launched services in the city a year ago, said 10% of its 2,000 dockless bikes were smashed or stolen every month this summer.

Some in the UK press have explained this vandalism by focusing on local British circumstances — an academic interviewed by The Guardian saw vandalism as an expression of disaffection — neglected Mancunian youth taking revenge on the powers that be; the German proprietor of one of the bike schemes blamed a lack of respect for shared resources in a country where the state has been rolled back. However, based on our desk research into dockless bikes as a global phenomenon through Thinktank Intelligence these purely local explanations may be part of, but are certainly not the whole, story.

Because this destruction is not merely a UK phenomenon. Rival operator OBike earlier this year pulled 6,000 of its 7,000 bikes off the streets of Munich after suffering damage and losses to its fleet. Citizens had long complained about the garishly coloured bicycles piling up in parks as well as blocking access to public buildings. Creative dissenters put up a number of art installations comprising oBikes in a show of cultural protest.

The company even had problems with vandalism in its home market of Singapore, which is about as law-abiding as a society gets. There have been problems in neighbouring Malaysia, too, while in Australia, oBike, and rival Ofo, have suffered heavy fleet losses as criminals stripped bikes of their built-in GPS equipment and posted it openly for sale on eBay.

During the summer, the carnage had consequences. oBike first pulled out of Australia, and then closed operations in Singapore after posting heavy operating losses — the local transport authority declared that the bike-sharing business model was “simply not sustainable”. The company had an incredible 50,000 bicycles on the streets at peak and the majority have now been scrapped, though thousands remain on thoroughfares.

Arguably, the company should have seen this coming. Earlier in China, Wukong Bicycles managed to operate for a mere six months before most of its bikes were stolen. Beijing’s 3Vbike went under after 1,000 bicycles disappeared within four months. Another portent was the experience of Sharing E Umbrella which last year lost the 300,000 brollies it deployed in 11 Chinese within a matter of weeks.

Some think this kind of public behaviour is down to the “tragedy of the commons”, the theory that people using a shared resource will act independently in their own interests, and to the detriment of the resource and the collective. However, that doesn’t explain why bike-sharing schemes where users have to return bicycles to a docking station don’t have the same kind of vandalism issues.

Thinktank’s experience of consumer attitudes to sharing around the world shows that the tragedy here lies more on the side of the providers thoughtlessly invading public spaces without paying attention to simple consumer psychology.

From our point of view the common problem with these sharing schemes around the globe is not so much cultural as structural.

When bike-sharing operators simply flood city streets with dockless two-wheelers that don’t seem to belong anywhere or to anyone, this seems like a free-for-all. To consumers, there appears to be no structure to such services while the entity behind them seems not to worry about its property. This all fosters a ‘so-why-should-I-care?’ approach to the bikes.

Docking stations on city streets however signal clearly the presence of an invisible proprietor and authority. Plus, there are rules and an etiquette to provide a sense that consumers are sharing a resource with a community of users.

The lesson for the tragedy of the commons is surely that you need a regulatory structure and some understanding of how people operate to provide any service to them, even one that is free.

Sabine Stork is a founding partner of Thinktank International Research