Dockless Bike Share: what is your civic obligation?

Bore me to death why don’t you! That is not so much directed to you, blog reader (though many of your comments are rather sleepy) than it is to anyone who has written about dockless bike share (and you know who you are). What is it about so-called “disruptive technologies” that makes the writing about them so boring? They’re not such interesting subjects that they can be simply stated and we will all faint. They’re not alien invasions. Even if they were, the media would still have to work—just watch Orson Welles go!

Let me amend this, um, situation, with something dramatic to say about dickless bike share. It will be disruptive, in a positive way, when lovers of cities (meaning haters of cars) start picking up bikes from the footpath and putting them in the middle of the road, where they are a nuisance to drivers. Come back and finish reading this after you have found the nearest ofo bike to your house and taken it out of the way of cyclists and pedestrians, and put it in the way of car drivers.

How did that feel? Good, I hope. You have just redeemed dockless bike share!

Long term, if it were scaled (meaning, if everyone did it), dickless bike share is an irredeemable concept. The public realm, around gathering places, could not cope if everyone went there by ofo. The concept is barely workable in Beijing where 90% of trips are by car or public transport. Can you imagine Dam Square if all the bike trips into Amsterdam each day (and in that city cycling represents 68% of the total mode share) were by cyclists absolved from the consequences of parking without any care? The piles of dumped bikes would be 7 times higher than in Beijing! In the Velotopia of my dreams, with its 90% bike modal share, privately owned and neatly put away share bikes are key.

If we can’t use it in the future, what can we do with dockless bike sharing right now? How can we see it as an interim step toward the world that we dream of? It is nice to believe that it is getting people out of their cars and onto bikes, and to some extent that is true. Unfortunately, that benefit is being negated by the problem of dickless share bikes blocking foot paths and bike paths. We want them to interrupt drivers, not us!

And that is why, when each of us sees one of those $30 pieces of poop with wrecked brakes parked on the footpath or bike path, we shall pick it up and carry it to the middle of the carriageway.

When their parts are picked clean and the clean frames are rusty
they shall be road blocks and not under foot 
though they be madness they shall be sane 
though they sink in our waterways they shall rise again 
and death shall have no dominion 
And death shall have no dominion!

I leave you with the rousing original version that it may fill your heart with the courage you need to go now and fulfil your civic duty.


  1. Nik Dow says:

    Totally agree that the share bikes shouldn’t take up “our” space, and there is plenty of car parking in most cities that could be reassigned. I ride OFO bikes around China’s three largest cities last year and didn’t see any problems with their parking. I did see OFO staff riding enormous bike trucks to move them around. Chinese cities are designating parking spaces for the bikes, and the Chinese are just a lot more sensible than westerners.
    Japan is more difficult as there is no on-street car parking to colonise, there it is hard to find space to park a bike anywhere, including most of the places I have stayed at. It’s no accident that Mobike has started their rollout in Sapporo which is not a typical Japanese City, with its wide, straight streets modelled on the North American grid. However, except for Tokyo, the falling population is resulting in more and more housing lots turning into small car parks and bike parking areas.
    I can see Dam square with some rows of share bikes neatly lined up. The people using their own bikes to get there have to leave them somewhere now. Share bikes on the other hand can turn over and take up *less* space – just like we are promised self driving for-hire cars will do (actually I don’t believe that).
    Dockless share bikes can work a lot better than car cities work and would require a lot less public space to do so. We just have to have a similar level of reallocation of space as accompanied the rise of the motor vehicle.

    • Steven says:

      Thanks Nik for those examples. The key difference I want to focus on, is how a person parks their own bike responsibly, knowing it could be impounded if they do not. That is the beauty of docks of share bikes. They ensure users park them as responsibly as they would their own bikes. Dockless share bikes absolve users of that basic civc responsibility, so the bikes and up strewn across throughways. If they are to block any throughway, make it the one bringing tonnes of useless steel into the city. One of two things will happen: drivers will switch to cycling to avoid the havoc, or, governments will realise they have to fund REAL bike share, which uses docks.

  2. Nik Dow says:

    Well, if we can’t get people to park share bikes responsibly, possibly we’ll fail at flinging them into the traffic lanes as well. Docked bikeshare is only convenient at a high density of stations. Dockless wins because of its flexibility, and part of this is ease of parking (anywhere sensible), not having to lock it to anything, the parked bikes take up less space than docked bikeshare or racks for private bikes.
    Cars also park incorrectly, e.g. on footpaths, across pedestrian crossings etc. It’s a lot easier to move a share bike than to tow away a car.
    I think you are right however, that in western countries (& from what I’ve seen, in Africa), people are less disciplined. However, Berlin & other large German cities have had their Call-a-bike system since 2000 and nobody is complaining there. So even some Western countries have sensible residents.

    • Steven says:

      Already this is a better quality discussion than I have found elsewhere. The first thing I would say, is density of stations is only a problem in suburban environments, where cycling will never have more than a token slice of the mode share. So by all means, let dockless bikes litter the burbs, along with wheelie bins and cars, and everything else they have out there that can’t be accommodated in cities. When we come to the city, inside the ring road, to areas of 3000+ people per square kilometre, or however you can define it, we come to an area where individuals have a responsibility to the collective endeavour of meeting for trade. I would rather we keep it so that people lose their own possessions (cars, bikes, etc.) if they don’t park them responsibly, and lose hefty deposits if they don’t do the same with possessions they’ve hired.

      p.s.: I forgot to respond to your observation about responsible africans and germans. Yes, there are cultures with a stronger collectivist will. We could tout various causes—racial homogeneity, shared narratives, authoritarian pasts, etc.—but I’m of the view that it’s diffuse settlements and how they cocoon us in houses and cars that make Australia and American (in particular) the arsehole nations we are. I’ve read about China, that the courtyard house for the parents, sons and their families, led to a society that disregarded anything outside the walls of the walled home. I guess what I’m saying, is buildings shape cultures.

    • hcdr says:

      Building certain shapes cultures. It’s not only the garages here, but the backyards. Australians generally have a low appreciation for public space, and high suspicion for other members of society. My mind was blown the first time I saw all the various congregations in Beijing’s parks – singing, dancing, playing music, games, activities – friends and strangers alike (I was invited to many of them.) It was a revelation to me.

  3. The advantages of dockless sharing are such that it seems rash to reject the whole approach merely because some early users have parked thoughtlessly. In the relatively mature dockless markets of China, from where images of mountains of oversupplied bikes have caused palpitations in countries just starting on this route, the technology has in fact transformed cities for the better, for instance pushing cycling mode share to top spot in Shenzhen. And most dockless bikes are sensibly parked.
    Surely the comparison should be with other civic responsibilities, not just transport options? Most people don’t litter, pick fights, or pee in the street. Those that do meet and must deal with society’s opprobrium, helped a little by the law, and together this keeps the situation manageable. I think the cultural factor is overrated: here in Hong Kong, spitting in the street was an ingrained habit among a certain slice of the older generation. But when it was outlawed, backed by a public information campaign, its rapid disappearance surprised many.

    • Nik Dow says:

      I suspect it’s not the “early users” but the non-using vandals who are mostly to blame. Witness the recent withdrawal of Gobee from Paris due to vandalism. Honestly, how hard is it for a passer-by to pick up a badly parked bike and move it out of the way? I’ve done it plenty of times in Melbourne and only had to do it very occasionally in China. Regarding Dr Behooving’s assertion that density of docked bikeshare is not an issue in the dense urban core, I disagree. The larger amount of space taken up by docked bikes is a problem there and sites are hard to acquire, just witness the NIMBY resistance to bike share docks in NYC. It also gives local government a stranglehold on dock locations and numbers, whereas dockless is run by the users who put the bikes where they are most useful (to them). At a rough guess I’d estimate dockless bikes take up about 50% the space of docked bikes in a big group. Individually they can take up zero space when they occupy a niche otherwise not used for anything. Having used Velib in Paris and OFO in China, I’d go for the latter in my city, but for the vandals.

    • Steven says:

      I’m glad I wasn’t thinking I could write about this on my patreon page. My wife would complain I was losing subscribers! But I’m going to get my head around this in some form, eventually.

    • Steven says:

      I was in Shenzhen recently, so have seen dockless at it’s best. The parking piles are smaller because nobody rides far, usually just to the bus stop. They’re not riding far because of the heat, some virtually uncrossable roads, and the ungodliness of the cheap dockless bikes with solid tires, etc.. The parking problem comes in places LOTS of people all ride to, not a bus stop, but somewhere like a stadium, city centre or central train station. That’s when users come under pressure to dump and run, with no consequences to them if they do!
      Although the pressure to have to spit is much lower, the analogy is a good one insofar as it implies policing around trouble spots could be an answer. But then the dockless companies aren’t paying for those extra police.

  4. I don’t quite understand the urge to load every cost for bike share at the feet of the provider companies. Everyone gets something out of these services – the companies, the users, ‘society’ and the local government – and then of course there are burdens to be borne. But the same is true for all sorts of other activities, not least commercial vehicles travelling on public roads, which require upkeep. There’s a balance to be worked out, and it’s coming, given the chance.
    For instance, London requires access to data generated by the share operators, which can generate upside for all parties.
    And geofencing offers untold options (for good and bad) in how these untethered bikes are brought to heel.

    • Steven says:

      Right now I feel I’m losing the argument against! It sets in train quite a complex set of causes and effects, complicated by the different contexts we’re seeing it in.

    • Nik Dow says:

      Anecdote, just had visitors, Italians living in Shenzhen. They tell me they ride the dockless share bikes “every day”. In Melbourne, they walked.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.