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Share bikes: Can Australians be trusted with nice things?

By Sarah Muller

With bikes in trees, tossed into rivers, mangled into unrecognisable shapes, and dangled from lampposts, it has been an eventful first year for Sydney’s colourful share bikes.

For some Sydneysiders, the “dockless” bikes are a convenient environmentally-friendly transport option. For many others, vandalism, “dumping” of bikes in inconvenient locations and theft has left a black mark against the industry as a whole.

Yet as six councils will decide the future of the industry in the inner city next week, some are now questioning what caused Sydney to display such resistance to the share bikes.

Since arriving in winter last year, the red, yellow, silver and orange share bikes have attracted substantial interest.

By the end of 2017, more than 60,000 people had signed up, according to Sydney Cycleways. At the time, Cycleways said more than 2,000 trips took place per day on share bikes across the city.

In January, after three months of operation, yellow share bike company Ofo claimed they had surpassed 320,000 rides in Sydney.

The system has proved popular with users such as Paddington resident John Benz, who often leaves his car at the school where he teaches cello, and cycles home to avoid “facing the 3.15pm traffic”.

“If it’s well-managed, I think it’s a great idea. It’s an easy transport solution,” Mr Benz said.

Indeed, the service is not an unpopular idea; a study conducted by McNair Ingenuity Research in December found more than half of surveyed Sydneysiders thought the dockless system was “a good thing”.

While it was more popular among people who already rode bikes regularly, only 14 per cent of people surveyed thought it was “a bad thing”.

Users of this bike are in for a wild ride. Photo: Sarah Muller

Despite this, the freestanding share bikes have frequently coloured headlines with stories of vandalism and mass dumping.

When contacted for this story, none of the companies, Reddy Go, Obike, Ofo or Mobike, provided numbers of bikes lost due to theft or damage.

A spokeswoman for Mobike confirmed they track the number of bikes in operation, but would not share the figure, as it was “commercially sensitive”.

Meanwhile, Reddy Go said damaged bikes and helmet theft had been an issue “for the industry as a whole”, forming part of the reason behind a “decline in trust in the industry”.

In the face of public backlash in December, six inner city councils established guidelines for operators – with a deadline for compliance at the end of March.

Yet just two weeks before the deadline, Waverley Council announced they had been “forced” to undertake a “clean-up” of the increasing number of “damaged and discarded” bikes.

The Council impounded 65 bikes in one day, belonging to all four companies. Of those collected, 53 were damaged, while 12 had been “placed unsafely”, including in pools, cliffs and trees.

The damage included “missing seats, missing or broken brakes, bent handlebars and wheel rims”, according to the Council.

In a statement, Waverley’s Mayor John Wakefield said the Council “wanted the schemes to work” but demanded the operators take greater responsibility.

With a twisted wheel and a missing handle, this is just one of the share bike casualties. Photo: Sarah Muller

Amy Mitchell, from North Bondi, has “really enjoyed” using the bikes to speed up trips to the beach, work, and when heading home after a night out.

The 18-year-old university student uses the bikes for free – having learnt through “Chinese whispers” one of the operator’s apps allows the rider to unlock bikes before entering payment details.

“Because I only take them short distances, it wouldn’t be worth paying,” Ms Mitchell said.

“I’ve got around quite fine by myself for the past 18 years just walking.”

Ms Mitchell acknowledged she is “abusing the system”, but thought her behaviour was nothing compared to “idiots” who vandalise bikes “for the fun of it”.

“I don’t really understand the vandalism,” she said.

“If it’s not bothering you, leave them alone.”

Bikes left in a flood zone in February. Photo: Sarah Muller

Conor Wynn, PhD candidate with BehaviourWorks at Monash University, argued the negative behaviour – and particularly dumping of the bikes – is related to the Australian public’s embedded “individualism” and “lack of respect for authority”.

A researcher of the dynamics of power and behaviour, Mr Wynn argued these characteristics are particularly relevant when compared with Singaporean contexts, where share bikes have been popular.

“If there is a trade-off between what’s good for you versus what’s good for the collective, people in Australia are much likely to favour what’s good for them,” Mr Wynn said.

“When it comes to doing the right thing around share bikes, Singaporeans are much more likely to listen to people of authority… the local council, or even the bike operators themselves.

“Messages like, ‘don’t park on the footpath’ are much less likely to be successful in Australia.”

While he acknowledges there are differences between individuals within a society, Mr Wynn suggests the existing business models are not “localised” to Australian settings, and lack incentive for good behaviour.

“In the terms and conditions, it says if you’re badly behaved it may result in… your deposit being gone. But if it’s 3am and you just want to go to bed, that’s not going to be effective,” he said.

“You need a signal saying if you leave this bike here right now, it’s going to cost you $50, and it could show you where the nearest [safe parking space] is.

“You would be much more inclined to cycle another 200 metres.”

Bicycles lined up neatly in Bondi, after the local council’s crackdown. Photo: Sarah Muller

Monica Morona, head of public affairs of Mobike Australia and New Zealand, “categorically disagreed” that selfishness is behind Australia’s resistance to the share bikes.

“If I look at the way Australian people behave in train stations, bus stops, lining up for lifts, Australians are very polite people. I don’t see why dockless bike sharing should break that mould,” Ms Morona said.

“Most people are actually quite good with the way they use the bikes. You’re always going to have a few people who don’t really behave well.

“I don’t think it should be said that… Australians can’t be trusted to have nice things.”

She argued public backlash towards the bikes reflects the broken windows theory – that if a community sees a commodity is not valued, “it just perpetuates vandalism and mistreatment”.

“You end up in this negative downward spiral,” Ms Morona said.

“The more public damage is done, companies can’t keep up cleaning up the damage, and so on.”

Ms Morona thought several bike share companies – her competitors – have given the industry a bad name, after putting out more bikes than they could handle.

“We don’t want to say that there shouldn’t be other operators… [but] if they are going to be operating they need to be held to an acceptable standard.”

Ofo declined to participate in this story, while attempts to contact Obike were unanswered by deadline.

In a statement, Reddy Go said: “Despite some of the difficulties, Reddy Go most certainly sees a positive future for share bikes in Sydney, and we look forward to continued dialogue and cooperation with councils.”