By Sarah Muller
Sub-edited by Stephen Hill
Sydney’s inner-city councils have slammed share bike operators for problems “plaguing” the city, claiming the industry has failed to meet its safety guideless in the first year of operation.
In particular public outrage has been directed at operators that have allowed for share bikes to be jettisoned across the city, some experts suggesting negative behaviour is rooted in Australia’s laisse faire culture that perceives these public goods as disposable.
In a meeting reviewing the share bike industry in early April, six Sydney councils, including Waverley, Woollahra, Randwick, Canada Bay, City of Sydney and the Inner West Council demanded operators be “more proactive” in responding to vandalism, theft, and abandoned bikes.
Inner West Council Mayor Darcy Byrne said operators have “fallen short” in meeting appropriate response times for damaged or abandoned bikes
“Bikes are helping more people move around Sydney, and that’s great, but operators have got to do more to get on top of issues like vandalism, public safety and accessibility,” Cr Byrne said in a statement.
“In the absence of action from the State Government, it looks like our councils will have to ramp up enforcement efforts to remove dangerous and badly parked bikes, but our rate- payers shouldn’t have to wear those costs.”
The councils’ latest review comes after they gave operators three months to comply with new guidelines in December.
The councils will give non-compliant operators a stay of execution before enforcing a tougher edict, calling upon the NSW government to introduce new legislation regulating the industry, a spokeswoman for the Inner West Council said.
As part of the final review due to be presented next month, the Inner West Council will consider a formal service agreement that makes operators liable for costs of impounding broken and abandoned bikes.
Some public policy experts have suggested that some responsibility for the poor treatment of share bikes should be directed towards an Australia public that have proven to be apathetic when it comes to using new products from the sharing economy.
Conor Wynn, PhD candidate with BehaviourWorks at Monash University, argued abandonment of share bikes in inconvenient locations can be traced to Australia’s embedded “individualism” and “lack of respect for authority”.
As a researcher of the dynamics of power and behaviour, Mr Wynn argued these characteristics are 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.
“Singaporeans are much more likely to listen to people of authority. 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 business models lack incentive for Australians to behave properly.
“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, it’s going to cost you $50. You would be much more inclined to cycle another 200 metres [to a safe parking zone].”
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”.
“If the bikes are not bothering you, leave them alone,” she said.
The bikes are not unpopular – more than 6,600 trips on share bikes occurred across the city per day in January and February, according to Randwick Council.
In March Waverley Council – one of the councils involved in the industry review – undertook a “clean-up” of “damaged and discarded” bikes.
The Council impounded 65 share bikes in one day, collecting 53 that were damaged and twelve that had been “placed unsafely”, including in pools, trees and on cliffs.
The damage included “missing seats, missing or broken brakes, bent handlebars and wheel rims”, the Council said.
Australia is not the only country to have had difficulty with share bike systems.
In France, Gobee.bike pulled their entire fleet out of service in February, after 3400 share bikes were broken and nearly 1000 stolen.
“The mass destruction of our fleet has become the new entertainment of under-aged individuals, encouraged by content broadly shared on social media,” the Hong-Kong based company said.
According to Mr Wynn’s research, this reflects France’s higher individualism and lower respect for authority, much like Australia.
Meanwhile in China, images of a “bicycle graveyard” have been widely shared, with many suggesting the bikes are oversupplied and operators are not capable of monitoring them.
Monica Morona, head of public affairs of Mobike Australia, “categorically disagreed” that selfishness is behind any resistance to the share bikes in Australia.
“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.
Ms Morona argued the backlash reflects the broken windows theory – that if a community sees a commodity not valued, “it 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 certain companies – her competitors – gave the industry a bad name, after putting out more bikes than they could handle.
“If they are going to be operating they need to be held to an acceptable standard,” she said.
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.
Ms Morona confirmed Mobike tracks the number of bikes in operation but said the number was “commercially sensitive”.
Ofo declined to participate in this story, while attempts to contact Obike were unanswered by deadline.
Meanwhile, Reddy Go said damaged bikes and helmet theft had been an issue “for the industry as a whole”, causing a “decline in trust”.
In a statement, they 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.”