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

Some Mobikes. mage: Getty.

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.

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.


Segregated playgrounds are just the start: inequality is built into the fabric of our cities

Yet more luxury flats. Image: Getty.

Developers in London have come under scrutiny for segregating people who live in social or affordable housing from residents who pay market rates. Prominent cases have included children from social housing being blocked from using a playground in a new development, and “poor doors” providing separate entrances for social housing residents.

Of course, segregation has long been a reality in cities around the world. For example, gated communities have been documented in the US cities since the 1970s, while racially segregated urban areas existed in South Africa under apartheid. Research by myself and other academics has shown that urban spaces which divide and exclude society’s poorer or more vulnerable citizens are still expanding rapidly, even replacing public provision of facilities and services – such as parks and playgrounds – in cities around the world.

Gated developments in Gurgaon, India, have created a patchwork of privatised services; elite developments in Hanoi, Vietnam, offer rich residents cleaner air; and luxury condos in Toronto, Canada, displace local residents in favour of foreign investors. An extreme example is the Eko Atlantic project in Nigeria – a private city being built in Lagos, where the majority of other residents face extreme levels of deprivation and poverty.

A commodity, or a right?

Although these developments come with their own unique context and characteristics, they all have one thing in common: they effectively segregate city dwellers. By providing the sorts of facilities and services which would normally be run by public authorities, but reserving them exclusively for certain residents, such developments threaten the wider public’s access to green spaces, decent housing, playgrounds and even safe sewage systems.

Access to basic services, which was once considered to be the right of all citizens, is at risk of becoming a commodity. Privatisation may start with minor services such as the landscaping or upkeep of neighbourhoods: for example, the maintenance of some new-build estates in the UK are being left to developers in return for a service charge. This might seem insignificant, but it introduces an unregulated cost for the residents.

Privatising the provision of municipal services may be seen by some as a way for wealthier residents to enjoy a better standard of living – as in Hanoi. But in the worst cases, it puts in a paywall in front of fundamental services such as sewage disposal – as happened in Gurgaon. In other words, privatisation may start with insignificant services and expand to more fundamental ones, creating greater segregation and inequality in cities.

A divided city

My own research on branded housing projects in Turkey has highlighted the drastic consequences of the gradual expansion of exclusive services and facilities through segregated developments. These private housing developments – known for their extensive use of branding – have sprung up in Istanbul and other Turkish cities over the past two decades, since the government began to favour a more neoliberal approach.

By 2014, there were more than 800 branded housing projects in Istanbul alone. They vary in scale from a single high-rise building to developments aiming to accommodate more than 20,000 residents. Today, this development type can be seen in every city in Turkey, from small towns to the largest metropolitan areas.

The branded housing projects are segregated by design, often featuring a single tower or an enclosing cluster of buildings, as well as walls and fences. They provide an extensive array of services and facilities exclusively for their residents, including parks, playgrounds, sports pitches, health clinics and landscaping.

Making the same services and facilities available within each project effectively prevents interaction between residents and people living outside of their development. What’s more, these projects often exist in neighbourhoods which lack publicly accessible open spaces such as parks and playgrounds.

This is a city-wide problem in Istanbul since the amount of publicly accessible green spaces in Istanbul is as low as 2.2 per cent of the total urban area. In London, 33 per cent of the city’s area is made up of parks and gardens open to the public – which shows the severity of the problem in Istanbul.

These branded housing projects do not feature any affordable units or social housing, so there are no opportunities for less privileged city-dwellers to enjoy vital facilities such as green spaces. This has knock-on effects on excluded residents’ mental and physical health, contributing to greater inequality in these respects, too.

Emerging alternatives

To prevent increasing inequality, exclusion and segregation in cities, fundamental urban services must be maintained or improved and kept in public ownership and made accessible for every city-dweller. There are emerging alternatives that show ways to do this and challenge privatisation policies.

For example, in some cities, local governments have “remunicipalised” key services, bringing them back into public ownership. A report by Dutch think-tank the Transnational Institute identified 235 cases where water supplies were remunicipalised across 37 countries between 2000 and 2015. The water remunicipalisation tracker keeps track of successful examples of remunicipalisation cases around the world, as well as ongoing campaigns.

It is vitally important to keep urban services public and reverse subtle forms or privatisation by focusing on delivering a decent standard of living for all residents. Local authorities need to be committed to this goal – but they must also receive adequate funds from local taxes and central governments. Only then, will quality services be available to all people living in cities.

The Conversation

Bilge Serin, Research Associate, University of Glasgow.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.