[InOut] Station-Free Bike Sharing – Where are we?

Station-free bike sharing started in Paris with Ofo just 3 months ago. Although history will be the ultimate judge, for now this idea sits centre stage in discussions about mobility and, therefore necessarily a key topic at the first edition of InOut.

Once upon a time there were… shared bikes

Stéphane Schultz, digital transformation consultant, explains: “ Initially, the system was literally tied to street furniture and advertising. Municipalities would issue a tender and a certain number of bikes were provided, with related services. In Rennes, the first shared bikes arrived in 1998. We then moved to a system of separate contracts tied to a public transport contract. In practice, this meant that the public transport operator would provide, bus, metro, tram, and bike services in a municipality. Two years ago, a new idea arrived from China: bike docking stations disappeared in favour of smartphone-connected bikes, which meant you could simply find a bike, unlock it, and leave it anywhere when finished. The system has over 200 million users in China. ”

“Free-floating”, another name for “station-free”

Ofo, the Chinese startup which introduced the concept in France, has just announced a US$866 million capital call. Founded 4 years ago and financed by Alibaba, among others, Ofo has rolled out its services in 21 countries around the world. Laurent Kennel, CEO France, explains its success as a reflection of the efficiency of bikes as a mode of transport: “Bikes are faster than cars for people wanting to get around, and also more efficient in terms of traffic flow. France has the lowest take-up in Europe in this regard, we need to find ways to progressively increase the share of bike use and adapt our municipalities to new options, to encourage sharing and active mobility by reducing hazard points, creating appropriate traffic lanes and parking spaces. Certainly if we want to quadruple bike use, as announced at InOut. ”

Two wheels and technological disruption

Laurent Kennel continues: “ It’s ironic that people are working on super-sophisticated goals like connected driverless cars, while bikes are an ideal option for urban mobility. The technological disruption of bikes is that they are perfectly suited as smartphone-enabled connected devices that are cheap to operate and offer great service ”. And bikes haven’t yet had the last word: “All circumstances have now come together to make this the ideal mode of transportation to meet societal expectations and environmental and public health challenges“. In China, the City of Shezhen has replaced 10% of its private cars with bikes, and fine particulates in Beijing have decreased by 35% in the past 4 years.

Tracking your route in a city, and with the city

How much should bikes encroach on public spaces? The adjustment will be gradual. Ofo shares an “educative” approach with its customers, which Laurent Kennel says, “Is about getting users to play the game and park at bike racks and in locations that don’t inconvenience users of public spaces.”

Also an opportunity to find new ways for startups and local authorities to work together? For Ofo: yes, by “Engaging in dialogue to share information and find ways to work together without sacrificing the flexibility and speed that these new options offer.

The same goes for Stéphane Schultz: “There’s no law that says we have to invent, but we have to work with the players who control the technology and don’t need infrastructure and legal authorisation. Municipalities are bound by legislation, but we’re progressing so fast that we find ourselves in grey areas. Look at Uber or Airbnb: Professionals – like taxi drivers – are fighting back, and municipalities are making decisions to try to reconcile the public interest with users’ interests […] We could carp and complain that things should be better, but this is only the beginning, and bike users and all urban users have a lot to be happy about .”

As for the pace of change, Stéphane Schultz concludes: “Things are progressing extraordinarily fast. Three years ago, no one would have dreamed of holding a workshop about this topic. Everything’s possible now! 

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