The notice called it “mass destruction”. After a spate of thefts and vandalism decimated its fleet of bicycles, Hong Kong-based start-up GoBee said last week it would pull out of French cities just days after quitting Italy.
But the company’s business update read like an indictment of Europeans: “In four months, 60 per cent of our fleet was destroyed, stolen or privatised, making the whole European project no longer sustainable.”
Europe is known as a centre of cycling — home to the Tour de France and the historic birthplace of the bicycle. According to the European Commission, 8 per cent of its population use bikes more than other transport every day and Asia’s largest bike sharing start-ups including Mobike, ofo, oBike and GoBee, have all trained their sights on its cities in search of growth outside their crowded home markets.
Flush with venture capital funding — Ofo has raised at least $1bn — the companies have rolled out in cities including London, Paris, Brussels, Manchester, Munich, Zurich and Madrid. But the launches have been plagued with problems: from logistics and regulation to vandalism, theft — and mass destruction.
“Vandalism is one of the main issues operators have,” says Niccolo Panozzo, development officer at the European Cyclists’ Federation. “While all bike-share systems face theft and vandalism, the ease of access to their bikes made it even worse for free-floating services.
“There is for sure a cultural component,” he adds. “It is something widespread, yes, but in Europe we have seen a lot of this.”
Hong Kong-based GoBee was one of the first Asian companies to try to crack the French market. Its distinctive green bikes, which could be parked anywhere after use, became a common sight on pavements in Paris.
However, within a few months of launching, more than 1,000 bikes had been stolen, almost 3,400 damaged across the country and nearly 300 complaints filed with the police. Many of the bikes were simply parked at people’s homes — or “privatised,” in the company’s words.
Although some suggested the fate of GoBee underlined a problem with civil society in France — and in particular with its marginalised youth in the suburbs — the company has also exited Italy and Belgium this year. “We were ready for some initial vandalism,” the company said after leaving Italy. “But unfortunately, during the past weeks, the vandalism and attacks towards our fleet have reached limits we can no longer overcome.”
The history of bike vandalism is as long as the history of shared bikes. More than 50 years ago, Amsterdam’s Witte Fietsen — or White Bikes service — closed in a matter of days after people either stole the free, unlocked bikes or threw them into canals and rivers. In the decades since, cities and companies have launched restricted versions of this model where riders leave shared bikes in specific places using docking stations.
Mobike’s biggest vandals are in Manchester, where bikes have often ended up in bins and in the canal, according to two employees with knowledge of the situation.
Docked biking schemes have faced problems too. Santander, which sponsors London’s public bike hire service, was forced temporarily to close a number of docking stations in Milton Keynes after more than half its bikes were damaged or stolen.
Bike-sharing companies employ armies of workers to monitor their bikes, which Mr Panozzo estimates can account for up to 30 per cent of costs. These stewards carry bikes to places of high demand, make minor repairs and report incidents of vandalism. “In every single city we have an operations team, we have employees and logistics suppliers to move around the bikes,” says Chris Martin, head of international expansion at Mobike.
Joseph Seal-Driver, general manager for the UK and Ireland at ofo, says the company has “an active team of marshals who are employed by ofo on the London living wage”.