Bristol’s bike sharing scheme: Yobike’s predicament

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Yobike was launched back in May 2017 and, despite its somewhat inconspicuous presence, there are thousands of active users in Bristol. Personally, I have seen no more than 10 users up until now, but perhaps that’s because I live in the suburbs and would rather stay indoors.

The main selling point of Yobike is that the bikes are dockless (i.e. can be parked anywhere sensible) and can be hired simply by scanning a QR code, although this does require downloading the app first and an initial registration process. In comparison to using docking stations and having to fiddle with a clunky hire machine, this is obviously much more convenient.

It turns out that this isn’t entirely how it works in practice. There are actually designated “parking spots” or, in other words, public bike racks, which essentially remove the advantage of Yobikes being “dockless” in the first place.  Still, there’s nothing stopping you from parking a Yobike outside your house, but you may find a £5 fine coming your way.

The decision for Yobike to debut in Bristol was a good one nonetheless. Bike-sharing schemes can only operate profitably in big cities with high population densities, where there is a much greater chance of people actually using them. Unfortunately, London was already taken by the Santander Cycles scheme (Boris Bikes) and, as a startup without any governmental backing, it would be very difficult for Yobike to gain traction there.

As the first UK city to win the European Green Capital Award, Bristol was the next best option: an ideal location to test the waters.  The city already has adequate cycle paths and is full of keen cyclists; further additions to the cycling culture would certainly be welcome. With a relatively large population of 454,200 and no pre-existing bike-sharing schemes, launch success was almost guaranteed.

However, Yobike’s business model is still riddled with flaws that obstruct its future development. Modern dockless bike sharing was pioneered in China’s big cities, where it has been hugely successful – but that doesn’t mean that it will be just as successful elsewhere. The market in China is completely different to the UK’s, yet Yobike’s model is essentially identical.

Firstly, from the technological aspect: “fintech” (finance technology: mobile payments and the like) has really taken off in China, and is one of the reasons why dockless bikes have become so popular there. This is partially due to China’s surging consumerism, which has resulted in everyone wanting to use the latest gadgets. It also helps that mobile data is very cheap in China, since an internet connection is required to unlock the bikes. The UK, despite being more developed, is much further behind when it comes to the integration of modern technology in everyday life – people are content with what they have already. Take high-speed trains, for example. Whilst Parliament is still hesitating over whether to build HS2, China has built 20,000km of high-speed rail lines over the past decade. As a rapidly developing country, China has much fewer qualms about new technology than Britain does, and this also goes to show that what works in China may not be applicable in the UK.

Additionally, Yobike seems to have ignored that “numbers” have contributed massively to the success of Chinese bike sharing schemes. There are around 800 Yobikes scattered around Bristol, which seems enough but simply isn’t. It would be an understatement to say that Yobikes are solitary creatures and rarely appear in groups, which I can tell from personal experience. Often there are no Yobikes in your proximity, so you might as well just walk to your destination and save £1 in the process. This is especially the case outside the city centre, where Yobikes become incredibly sparse. In fact, some of Bristol’s outer zones are entirely off-limits.

A rare sighting of three Yobikes at once

Compare this to the likes of Mobike and Ofo, the Chinese bike-sharing giants that provide most of the 2.4 million shared bicycles in Beijing. Here, you can see dozens of bikes available for hire almost anywhere you go. Beijing is obviously huge compared to Bristol, with a much greater population, but this is precisely what has created the booming bike-sharing industry there.

Below is a table that illustrates the difference between bike sharing in Bristol and Beijing:

City Number of shared bikes Population Number of people per bike
Bristol 800 454,200 567
Beijing 2.4 million 22 million 9

(Sources: Bristol Post, Wikipedia, BBC News, World Population Review)

The figures above show that in Bristol 568 people have to share a Yobike between them, whereas in Beijing there are just 9 people per bike. Evidently, the number of shared bikes in Bristol is nowhere near sufficient – over 40,000 Yobikes are still needed to reach a similar bike-to-people ratio!

A general principle for bike sharing is that the greater the scale, the more effective it becomes. This works in a virtuous cycle (pun intended): the more users there are, the more bikes the companies will provide since they can make more profit that way. The increased number and hence availability of bikes will then attract more users, and so on.

The problem with Yobike is that the number of users has remained more or less constant for some time now. Initially, as demand for Yobikes increased, the number of bikes available also increased from 300 to what is now 800. Currently, however, anyone who actually wants to use a Yobike is already using it – demand has become stagnant and halted the virtuous cycle. If the number of Yobikes was increased by a noticeable margin – such that a typical pedestrian would be able to see the difference whilst walking down the street – then demand for bikes would certainly rise. Unfortunately, this is unrealistic. Bristol would quickly reach maximum capacity if the streets were suddenly “flooded” with bikes, and local regulations would prevent this from happening anyway. One of the reasons why the Chinese bike sharing industry has grown so much is because the Chinese authorities were quite lax on regulations at first and only began to crack down on the number of bikes quite recently.

Without a significant increase in the number of bikes, Yobikes do not have any particular appeal to the majority of people in Bristol, especially since they cannot even be considered “dockless”.  The QR code unlocking process might even be seen as a hassle to some, whereas this is already the standard for payments in China. To reiterate, the minority who do consider Yobike as a convenience are the ones already using it.

A common sight in China: an Ofo bike available to hire

Perhaps Yobike’s performance so far has been within expectations, but the model is severely lacking in sustainability and profitability. The hourly charge of £1 needs to account for the production costs of 800 bikes, regular maintenance costs, employee wages and various other expenses. After all, even Ofo and Mobike, who have raised at least £1bn in investments, have yet to make any profits. At this rate, neither the company that owns Yobike or the general public have much use for it.

What Yobike needs to do most now is attract more potential users before they can expand further. Seeing as the supposed convenience of “dockless” bikes doesn’t seem particularly appealing to most people, especially due to the meagre numbers, I suggest providing more special offers and complimentary rides. Currently, the only incentive is “First ride free”, which is probably considered by most as the typical free trial that can immediately be ignored. But what if it were “Five rides free”? Ten rides free? Top up £10 and get a free cinema ticket? Personally, though, I’d prefer “free bike”.