Here are six things I learnt in a fortnight using London’s new dockless rent-a-bikes

By Charlie Lawrence

About a month ago, my loyal bike finally retired in spectacular fashion as I struggled to get up a hill in Clerkenwell. With bloody knees and payday still a long way off, I thought I’d give London’s new dockless rent-a-bikes a go.

Of the various dockless operators that have launched their bikes onto the capital’s cycling scene over the past year, Mobike and Ofo appeared, to me, to be the biggest competitors. Curious and keen to play the field, I decided to test them both out, although by the end of my two-week trial I’d also become aware of similar companies Urbo and Obike – and wouldn’t really be surprised if another had launched before this article is even published.

I found they all provide essentially the same service in essentially the same way. All you need is the relevant app and a bank card, and you’re good to go – simply scanning a QPR code on the bike, which then unlocks it. When you’ve made your journey, you just relock the bike and are automatically charged. It’s brilliantly simple and far more convenient than Boris Bikes, but here are a few things to bear in mind:

Give it the once over before you ride it

The companies’ method of relying on users to report when a bike breaks is far from fool proof. In a rush, I went to ride off on one, only to realise the back wheel was basically mashed. Worst of all, they still charged me, meaning I paid 5p to let them know their bike was unusable. Thanks, Ofo!

Never aim for a bike near a body of water

If you’ve opened your app and seen a conveniently placed bike right next to a canal or a river, just forget about it. The proximity to water and the fact they’re not locked to anything renders the bikes too tempting a target for vandals.

Living right by a canal, this proved a particular sore spot for me – resulting in five minutes spent pacing up and down the same stretch, wondering if I’ve finally lost the plot, only to spot a sad-looking bike at the bottom of the canal.  Take my advice: stick to the landlocked ones.

Can you believe the bad luck of these four people who crashed into the Thames? What are the chances?
Image: author’s screenshot.

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Always check for a bike, even if you’re out of ‘the zone’

Each company has defined the areas in which it operates, and users will have ‘points’ deducted for parking elsewhere.

Shockingly, people seem not especially fussed by this whole point malarkey, and as such there are bikes to be found all over the place.

I found a Mobike in Ponders End, five miles from the nearest operating area. So no matter where you are in the city, check. The rent-a-bike gods may be smiling down on you.

Make sure you get one with gears

Not all of them have gears. Fine if you just want to cycle alongside your gran as she walks to the shops, but should you actually want to travel anywhere at all, particularly if that place is uphill, then you’re going to need some.

In my weeks using the bikes I didn’t really discover a systematic way of checking for gears via the apps so you just have to find a bike and see for yourself. How quaint.

Bring your own helmet

In fact, bring your own lights as well. Despite vague promises from some of the companies of supplying helmets with the bikes, I am yet to see one attached.

The lights also often don’t work but, because they rely on a dynamo, you need to be actually riding the bike to find this out. Therefore you could end up taking on Euston Road after dark without lights or a helmet. Terrifying stuff.

Keep an eye on the pricing

There’s no denying the bikes are still being far cheaper than public transport alternatives and the Santander Bikes. The pricing system differs between companies and is, as the small print says, subject to change. Mobike recently hiked their prices in Manchester after a spate of vandalism and their website now conveniently omits the cost of renting a bike. When I started my trial, users were charged per 30 minutes of use, it’s now per 20 minutes. I’d recommend checking each time you use the bikes so you don’t get caught out.  

With the weather cheering up, it’s primetime for cycling. If, like me, you’re flirting with rickets after the long winter, getting outside is also a bit of a medical necessity. Dockless bikes’ meteoric rise suggests an Uber-esque clash with regulatory bodies at some point but for now, enjoy. Get your shorts on and take the chance to explore the city.

This article is from the CityMetric archive: some formatting and images may not be present.
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