Barnabé Monnot

Year 4 PhD candidate in Singapore, research in algorithmic game theory and large systems with a data-driven approach.

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60km with Obike and Mobike

I am in love with bicycle sharing. There, it is said. I can now continue my totally biased journal of thoughts relative to the new dockless bicycles that appeared overnight in Singapore. It is a continuation of sorts of my previous article on cycling in Singapore. I will use the same format of going through several not necessarily ordered thoughts.

Dockless?

For us Parisians, who have been using one of the first citywide systems of shared bicycles (the heavy, plastic-y grey Velib’), the concept of dockless is rather new. The first iterations of shared bicycles, such as Velib’, used docks: the bicycle could only be taken from certain designated points where a built-in lock system would serve as a parking spot. Remember that this happened before smartphones grew to be so ubiquitous. Now dockless bicycles do not require these stations anymore, because the locks are on the bikes themselves. They are Bluetooth connected and communicate via an app to unlock the bicycle as the user scans the barcode. This entails that the bicycles can be parked anywhere, which is a massive difference. When looking for a bicycle, the app scans around and shows on a map available units. It is even possible to reserve the bicycle for 10 to 15 minutes, giving you the time to go and pick it up once you spotted it on the app.

Obike or Mobike?

The greatness of a system comes from accessibility (how many bicycles are available at any given moment) and maintenance (how good the bicycles are). I am leaving out a third important aspect, costs, because I have never paid for any of my rides, thanks to the massive promotions both operators provided since their launch. There is apparently 6 different operators in Singapore, with more to come, but the bicycles I personally encounter the most are Obikes and Mobikes (sometimes Ofo ones too, which I have never used). In my experience of doing 38km with Mobikes (32 rides total) and 23km with Obikes (28 rides total), I would say Mobike is the better one. I have even gone out of my way to reach a Mobike unit instead of an Obike which was closer a few times. Why they are better boils down to a few simple things:

  • They are usually better maintained: Sometimes the booking bounces, when the bicycle has been flagged for maintenance by the previous user. If the maintenance is serious, the app will not let you use the bike, which sits idly there waiting for the operator to pick it up. Bounces rarely happened for me on Mobike, whereas they have at a rate of 25% perhaps on Obike. I also noticed the seat height was easier to set on Mobike. Finally, the plastic piece attached to the lock that allows you to push it closed is always there, while on quite a lot of Obike units it is gone (it sounds like a teeny thing but it is difficult to close the lock without).
  • Some of them have gears: Just like the Velib’, some Mobike units have a 3-gear system, which really makes for a more comfortable ride.
  • The bicycle warns you if you leave something in its basket: This is amazing. It has helped me twice (I tend to forget stuff), as I was leaving the bicycle, a loud beep-beep-beep rang. The basket is equipped with a solar panel, so it knows when it is obscured and will remind you to pick up your item before leaving.
  • To end on a softening note: There tends to be fewer Mobike units around my place, but not so few that I cannot reliably find one within 5 minutes.

In summary, and as found in some public toilets:

Mobike good

Where to park?

This is the main controversy surrounding these new bicycle systems. Everyone has seen the pictures of mountains of unused bicycles in China piling up because the market is so saturated there. Amazing as the possibility of leaving your bike anywhere is (excluding private spaces or dangerous locations of course), it is not to the taste of many that the bikes are just scattered around. Various nudges are designed to encourage users to park their bike responsibly:

  • A point-based credit system: If you see a bicycle left in a bad spot (perhaps on the road or in a private area), you can flag it and the previous user who parked it there will receive negative credit. It is understood that low credit may lead to you being kicked out of the system, though with the abundance of operators I wonder about the efficiency.
  • “Designated” parking spots: The app will show preferred locations (usually close to malls or bus and train stations) with a number of bicycles available there. It is absurd to me. Why these bicycles are great is specifically because they fill the gaps in underserved neighborhoods… It makes sense of course to plan for a greater number of bicycles near a station after rush hour say (commuters are doing the last mile on the bike), but it could be achieved differently, either through the operator shuttling a few more bikes at specific times or with a market alternative (leave your bike next to the MRT and receive a 50 cents discount on your next ride). I also put designated in quotes because these spaces are sometimes barely designed for it.

But it is not enough apparently. The bike-sharing operators are seemingly in talks with LTA to enforce stricter restrictions, such as geo-fencing. Since the app tracks your location from the smartphone, it can also tell you to park only in designated areas, whereas so far it only nudges you to do it. I am honestly waiting to see how severe the geo-fencing will be, and I really hope not too. The closest designated bike space is a 100m away from my place, which is not too bad, but it is quite small and totally unshaded, meaning the seat may be burning hot in sunny days or completely wet in rainy ones. In my experience, these parking areas are also quite difficult to find once on the bike. They appear on the app and are signalled physically by a yellow box painted on the ground, but can be tricky to spot, especially in HDBs. I hope there will be more signposts telling you where to go in the future, to make the system really feasible. Wait and see then.

A more radical idea would be to simply open car parking spaces to bicycles. One space can easily fit 10 bicycles, so if Singapore is really keen on implementing their “Car-Free society”, it should follow that as users transition from cars to bicycles, more space is dedicated for the latter. And the maths of 1 car to 10 bicycles holds up well to show just how much space can be gained, in a land-constrained nation such as Singapore (parking spaces take up to 4% of the total land space, roads 12%). Of course, I do not expect such a politically charged action to be ever discussed, even in Paris, where we have an all-out war against cars in the city at the moment. But I mean, it’s an idea.

What is to come

With the rise of bike-sharing systems, there will be a rapid increase in how many people use bicycles, either as a means of completing their commute (the first-mile last-mile concept) or as a full-on transport mode. As operators start providing e-bicycles with in-built electric engines, different classes of citizens may join in, such as seniors. I do not believe (and laid out previously) that Singapore has yet adequately addressed the issue of transitioning to bicycles though. For a start, it is misguided to expect “road education” on how pedestrians and cyclists are to share the sidewalk to fully solve the problem. When bicycle-sharing (or PMD-sharing or whatever comes next) is assimilated by the society, as it has been in many other cities, pedestrians will rightfully get fed up at the congestion and hassle on the sidewalk, while riders will not have a satisfying use of their device, because it is just too slow and dangerous to be on the sidewalk. I hope more dedicated and protected bicycle lanes will see the light of day.

Regarding the geo-fencing, I am hoping that it does not constrain the system too much. If I have to walk over 500m to or from my bicycle, the system is basically useless, as I only use it for short rides (which I think is the crushing majority of users too, and how the pricing system is designed). Same goes if I have to circle around 5 minutes to find the designated parking spot.

But it is a small revolution. It has changed my commuting and daily life in at least a dozen of ways. Confident that I can find a bike and cycle for 5 to 10 minutes to reach my favorite food places around home, I am now using it all the time. As I transition this year to more days doing home office (and will write an article about it soon), it has unlocked my productivity in ways I didn’t expect. One stupid obvious thing is: it makes me happy. Riding a bike is fun, and using it to drop by the grocery store or my lunch place offers me a nice outdoor break from working at home. True, the same could be achieved with a non-shared bicycle, but I actually found myself using the shared ones more often than my regular city bicycle, simply because I did not need to go and park it back in my condo (I have now sold my city bike and invested in a nice road bike that I use for exercise and long rides only). It is also fast to spot one, unlock it, and lock it back, so I do not waste a ton of time during my daily outings and feel less guilty about it too! I fully expect the effects to vary according to your schedule, occupation, hobbies and such, but I am also confident that everyone can find a great way to use the system.

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