Hands On With oBike, The Bike Sharing Scheme That's Taking On London's Boris Bikes

By James O Malley on at

For several years now, I’ve been a staunch advocate of cycling as a “magic bullet” solution to a number of modern woes: if we cycled more there would be less congestion, less carbon belched out into the atmosphere - and we’d all get healthier too. What’s not to like?

My damascene conversion to cycling zealotry was provoked by something brilliant that happened in London: The creation of the cycle hire scheme. From 2010, cycle hire points were installed around the centre of the city, and enabled users to rent bikes. The best part? There would be no need to return your bike to wherever you picked it up - you could simply drop it off at a docking station near your destination, and forget about it.

I found it a genuinely life-changing experience. Being able to easily hire a bike enabled me to build up the confidence to cycle on London’s sometimes terrifying roads, and because of the way it worked, it meant I could easily build cycling into my life. No more squeezing onto a crowded Tube to get between meetings: Instead, I could cycle.

It’s unfortunate then that the Boris Bikes (as they became known) had one fatal floor: Coverage. Annoyingly, because of the byzantine way funding works, the bikes are only available in the most central part of London, and a handful of outer boroughs whose councils have paid for the privilege. Which means that if you live slightly further out, no cycle hire bikes for you. I learned this the hard way when I moved to Zone 3 a few years ago.

So it was with some excitement that I learned that oBike had launched in London. This is a privately operated competitor to Boris Bikes with one crucial twist: No docking stations. The bikes are scattered throughout the city and each is parked wherever the person dropping them off leaves it (though the company encourages you to use proper bike stands).

The best part? According to the oBike website, the area the bikes serve is “all of London”. I’ve asked the company exactly what that means (they’re yet to get back to me), but because of the lack of need for docking stations, it means the range can be much further afield.

The way it works is that you download the app on your phone, enter your payment details and pay a £29 deposit - that is fully refunded if you cancel. And then when you encounter a bike you want to hire, simply scan the QR code and the bike will unlock, brilliant!

Joining The Peleton

Earlier this week I put oBike to the test. Having finished an important business meeting, I fired up the app and used it to locate a nearby bike.

The app is actually bizarrely confusing. You’re presented with a map that you can scroll around, but rather than simply show nearby bikes in the centre of the screen there is a pin. Tap on the screen - perhaps to set a destination or the location where you are - and nothing happens. Scroll around until you find a bike marker and press on it, and it will then plot you a route from the wrongly placed pin to the bike. Perhaps I missed something - but either way, it seems very counter-intuitive. Anyway, if you do manage to find a bike on the app, you can reserve it for ten minutes, to make sure that nobody pinches it before you get there.

So I reserved a bike and then started following the map on my phone to find it. This is perhaps where oBike falls down compared to Boris Bikes: I was doing this at night, and given that there was no docking stations I was essentially looking for a normal looking bike, somewhere near the pin in the map. And because GPS isn’t pinpoint accurate, positioning details can actually be misleading - in the end, the bike I reserved was a good two minutes further along the road than I expected, and a long way from the stated location.

The good news is that you don’t have to start your journey this way. If you simply see a bike in the street you want to take you can hit the “unlock” button and go straight to the scanning.

When you scan, the bike will unlock - and this annoyed me, but I couldn’t work out exactly how the unlocking was triggered. I had assumed each bike would be equipped with GPS and a data connection to phone home and tell oBike where it was, but during the unlocking procedure the app warns the user to keep their bluetooth switched on - so perhaps the unlock command is sent locally instead?

Either way, the bike pinged open and I was good to go.

Build-wise, the oBike cycles are very similar to Boris Bikes: They’re heavy, and sturdy, so aren’t designed for performance. And annoyingly, for someone as unfit as I am, they don’t have gears, which made a gentle incline exhausting.

But other than that, it did a perfectly decent job of getting me to my destination - and it was much more fun than taking the tube or the bus.

I am a little sceptical of some of how well oBike will be able to manage its bikes: Just after the app launched, there were reports that bikes were being moved by councils and receiving parking tickets. And also, it is unclear whether oBike will be actively redistributing its inventory to cater for demand like TfL do with Boris Bikes. In the case of the latter, you will regularly see vans in London topping up the number of bikes available, at, say, major railway stations, to keep commuters happy.

Given my brief experience though, I’m very excited about the prospect of oBike doing for cycling what Uber has done for taxis. If biking can be made even easier and even more universal, that’s only a good thing for the planet, our health and our sanity.