OPINION: It’s Not oBike, It’s You

OPINION: It’s Not oBike, It’s You
Photo Credit:新北市政府

What you need to know

It is not only the government’s responsibility to correct residents’ behavior. It is incumbent upon all residents to take on the matter, writes Matthew Lubin.

Ever since Singapore-based dockless bike-share service oBike entered the Taipei market in April, it has faced some harsh criticism, mostly because of the perceived lack of space to park the bikes. The criticism, however, has neglected to focus on the root problem of oBike: the users.

Rather than admonish the behavior that causes the problems, the public along with politicians have been quick to reprimand the company that does nothing more than provide a service. Is it really the company’s fault that people are jerks?

The company notes on its website and app that bikes should be returned to appropriate parking spaces that do not obstruct pedestrian or vehicle traffic. It states, “The bike should be returned to a designated public bike parking area.” It even provides photos of signs indicating appropriate and inappropriate parking locations. On its Facebook page, the company reminds users to only park in designated areas and that violators would have credits deducted from their accounts.

The company made a quiet entry with only 216 bikes in Taipei though this has since expanded to more than 1,000 – still far fewer than the number of private bicycles or YouBikes in the city. Following public complaints, New Taipei City banned oBikes from parking in motorbike parking spaces, which could each accommodate two bicycles, while Taipei City is considering its regulatory options. oBike, for its part, says that it avoids deploying its bikes in high-traffic areas to reduce potential problems.

Taipei is not the only market in Taiwan for oBike; it also began operating in Taitung where there is no other public bike-share option. I tested it out in the southeastern town on a long ride along the coast. What I discovered on that ride was that the bikes are not made to be taken on long leisurely rides, but rather intended for short commutes or running errands.

The bikes can be useful in areas where there are fewer YouBike stations or where available YouBikes are more difficult to obtain, such as around Zhishan MRT station. Some of these areas don't have the space for additional YouBike docking stations, but could accommodate private or shared bicycles, especially as the bicycles take up less space than a scooter.

One aspect in which oBike easily exceeds YouBike is the app. YouBike requires an EasyCard or iPass that is registered with a phone number. This can make it difficult for tourists to use the popular bike-share program. oBike, on the other hand, only requires a credit card and deposit via the app, making it much more user-friendly (and the NT$900 [US$30] deposit is refundable at any time).

The fixed-gear bikes are heavy, almost twice the weight of a YouBike, which is already heavy but at least has three gears. Unfortunately, that also prevents riders like me from using oBike for leisure purposes.

Consider the weight of the bike when viewing pictures of oBikes being “abandoned” in a river. It takes effort to throw one of those bikes into a river—this is an intentional act to damage a rented product. The so-called abandoned bicycles may not be the result of a dissatisfied user, but could be a malicious act carried out by a non-user who doesn't like seeing bicycles take up motorbike parking spaces. There are probably people who would like to do the same to illegally-parked motorbikes if they were light enough to do so.

With all the security cameras set up around Taiwan, it shouldn't be difficult to find who is responsible for tossing the bicycles aside. It would, however, require action from city governments that so-far seem uninterested.

The complaints voiced online since oBike arrived in northern Taiwan appear to have mainly come from those who praise YouBike and want to protect it from competition. Those same voices are also unlikely to have ever used oBike or even checked out its app.

The main complaints have been that the bikes take up motorbike parking spaces or are parked in places that hinder pedestrian traffic. Here’s news for you: there are much more illegally parked motorbikes and cars in Taipei and New Taipei that hinder vehicle and pedestrian traffic. If people want to improve traffic flow, they should look to the bigger problem first.

On a daily basis, I see more illegally parked motorbikes and cars than bicycles. In my neighborhood of Zhonghe, I have only seen a few oBikes, but they have all been parked in reasonable locations that are more out of the way than the motorbikes that block sidewalks.

There is a simple fix for the poorly parked oBikes as well. Authorities in the cities can easily issue fines for the parking offenses and force users to park the bikes in appropriate locations. oBike could incorporate possible parking locations in its app as well. And to correct the behavior of the users who haphazardly park the bikes wherever they wish, oBike has the ability to track the bike in question and charge an additional fee for the offense, which would offset any fines incurred that the company would need to pay.

If users act appropriately when utilizing a service, the community wins. If people continue to show their disrespect for the community and the services offered, there will only be further complaints. And those complaints should be aimed at the people causing the problem, not the services that are offered. If those at fault are not admonished for their behavior, they will continue to cause problems and may influence more to act inappropriately as well.

The Taipei City Government has taken a step toward correcting the behavior with impounding bikes that are parked illegally as of Aug. 1, but that is not enough. It creates a double standard with bikes that aren’t registered. It also does not provide companies such as oBike with a GPS location of the bike in question, which means that it will be more difficult to locate the user who caused the offense.

It is not only the government’s responsibility to correct residents’ behavior. It is incumbent upon all residents to take on the matter.

Editor: Olivia Yang