As I was walking along Broad Street, Oxford I saw three students cycling. One of them, a young woman, stretched out her arms and shouted spontaneously, “Isn’t it great to be alive ?”
It was a timeless scene. The Autumn Sun was hot and bright making the ancient Oxford colleges beautiful. Many of the students were dressed in sub-fusc – dark clothing with gowns worn on formal occasions at Oxford University.
Yet, change is coming to the cobbled streets of Oxford. A new type of bike is appearing. Brightly coloured and garish … all powered by a digital transformation.
Dockless bikes – the new digital transformation
Oxford is one of a number of UK cities which is targeted by the dockless bike companies. These range from mulitnationals like Ofo (Chinese with revenues of $3Bn) and oBike (Singapore) to local UK startup, Pony Bikes.
Why Oxford? Oxford has a long heritage of cycling. In fact our local Council has just unveiled new signs on all of the major roads into the city, proclaiming Oxford as a “cycling city”.
Convenience – a new way to rent bikes
The concept of Dockless bikes is simple. Register with one of the companies and download their App. Locate a bike, use your App to unlock it and then – the key thing – leave it where you want.
Pricing is simple too – Pony Bikes charge 50p for 30 mins.
The key thing about this business model is convenience. You can literally leave your bike anywhere within the city – unlike other schemes in the past you don’t have to find a special docking station.
The Uber of bikes ?
People have called this new scheme the “Uber of bikes “ but I believe there is much to it than that.
Like Uber, these schemes are built on data. They will know when people cycle, where they start, and where they go. This data can then be used to identify hotspots for bike demand. It’s a great example of Web 3.0 – using digital technology to move physical objects around to meet demand.
The companies involved are also heavily dependent on Venture Capital Funding. Ofo raised nearly $600 million dollars in funding and there is a growing list of Dockless bike companies worldwide.
However these schemes create new challenges.
These companies have trucks (and also bikes with special carriers) that patrol the city picking up bikes and redistributing them where they are needed. There have already been instances reported in our local press about people vandalising the bikes.
And you do see the odd dockless bike left in strange places ! I saw one in the middle of a field in the Oxford Green Belt…. The question is not so much why it was left there as how did they get home ?
Learning from Uber / working with the community
When I first heard about dockless bikes I was sceptical. I own a bike and I cycle as much as possible. Oxford already has thousands of bikes and lots of bikes shops so I was a little surprised to find that the local Council is supportive of dockless bikes.
However when I interviewed Oxford Council’s champion for cycling, Louise Upton, in relation to a charity bike event I’ve been working on, I got a different perspective.
The council’s stated aim is to get more people in the city cycling, In 2011 17% of commuters in Oxford cycled to work. The council have a very ambitious target of growing this to 70%.
They prefer people to be riding well-maintained bikes with working brakes and lights. The Council have even put in place a code of conduct to ensure that the providers fit into Oxford.
Oxford already has a significant problem with abandoned bikes – typically students at the end of their years. One college alone has around 65 abandoned bikes every year. This represents nearly 15% of students in the College.
And, of course, unlike schemes like London’s Boris Bikes, these schemes cost the Council nothing.
Punctured ambitions or freewheel to success ?
So, will this new transformation stick ? There are many reasons why the dockless transformation may not take off…
Maybe there isn’t the demand. Maybe there are already too many companies competing in this space. Maybe we’ll end up with a bike share graveyard, as has been reported in the Chinese city of Xiamen.
For my part, I hope it succeeds. The more people who cycle the better. The more cars we remove from the roads the better.
But, above all, if this innovative scheme brings more joy to more people on a sunny Autumn day in Broad Street, then it’s all good to me.
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#Digitaltransformation #Docklessbikes #Innovation