These companies have an edge over existing cycle hire programmes in that they don’t rely on docking stations. Instead, users find the nearest dormant bike, which is tracked by GPS, within their respective apps. In Ofo’s case, people are sent a numerical code to unlock the two-wheeler, while Mobike’s app asks users to scan a QR code on the bike for the same outcome. Whenever the rider is done pedalling, they simply park the bike up anywhere it’s legal to leave them, lock it back up, and the app automatically charges them for the rental period.
These bike-sharing schemes are big business in Asia. Ofo has the backing of ride-hailing behemoth DiDi Chuxing, for instance, and Mobike counts Tencent and Foxconn amongst its investors. Competition between the two, as well as several other identical companies, is particularly fierce in China, and not without its problems. As exposure and accessibility is key, firms have saturated Chinese cities with tens of thousands of bikes each. Sometimes there simply isn’t space to park them up, leading people to dump them in huge, twisted piles.
This eventuality hasn’t gone unrecognised in the UK. Cambridge city council raised concerns about potential pavement clutter ahead of Ofo’s pilot, and in today’s Mobike announcement, Manchester officials note a code of conduct has been drawn up to ensure the influx of bikes don’t become a nuisance.