Inside a Bike Share Disaster - The Downfall of oBike
Inside a Bike Share Disaster - The Downfall of oBike

Inside a Bike Share Disaster - The Downfall of oBike

This share bike scheme caused chaos on the streets (and rivers) of Melbourne. This vide explores what went wrong, and what happened to thousands of oBikes.


This is an oBike. It looks like a fun little yellow vehicle for cruising around town, but oBike was no normal bike-share scheme. In fact, it lasted less than one year in Melbourne and caused chaos on the streets and rivers of the city. So what went wrong? This is a wild story about a shadowy organisation, millions of dollars of misappropriated funds, and I try to answer the question, what happened to thousands of oBikes?

Around 1,000 oBikes hit the streets of Melbourne in June 2017, seemingly overnight, and he's here's how you oBike. Download the app, pay a $69 deposit, complete your ride. And it seems the optional step was this, dump or vandalise the bike.

Plenty of people have complained about the new yellow oBikes being abandoned on Melbourne footpaths.

Bikes are affected because of these incidents in terms of vandalism, but we are confident that we can change that. That's Chethan. He was the communications lead for oBike and I think he had one of the hardest jobs in Australia. His role was to confront the media and plead with people not to destroy the system. Now I can't show you every incident 'cause it would take way too long. So instead I've put a little montage together that tries to sum up one year of oBikes. One of the challenges for any bike-share system in Australia is that of helmets. Australia is one of the few places in the world that mandates helmets for all cyclists. When Boris Johnson came to Australia when he was Lord Mayor, he was talking up the Boris bike system that's really widely used in London and actually said that helmets would dissuade people from using it. And in true Boris' fashion, he took a ride in Melbourne not wearing a helmet and got called out for it in the media. Arnold Schwarzenegger is someone else who was famously pulled over by the Melbourne police for not wearing a helmet. And if they're not gonna give the Terminator a shot, there's no way that share cyclists can get away with not using a helmet. So what did oBikes do? Well, they purchased a bunch of these and their approach was to simply clip these on to the bikes themselves. And how did that go for them?

[Interviewer] Helmets. I had a call earlier saying he'd seen plenty of bikes with no helmets. What happens with the helmets?

[Chethan] We were surprised to see that too many of them were getting nicked at a sock down-

[Interviewer] Being stolen?

[Chethan] Yep.

[Interviewer] So how many helmets have been stolen?

[Chethan] I would say, about 40% of the helmets are stolen out there.

[Interviewer] So it's 40%, 400.

[Chethan] Yes. It is quite high. Yes. That's why I've mentioned it did catch us by surprise.

[TV] I just can't imagine this scenario working out. I mean, I think there are certainly bike sharing options that work well, but that's where there's a dock to put them. 40% of the helmets have gone missing within the first week. I can't see it not ending badly.

And this dockless feature would cause real issues.

[Newscaster] We are not sure how these came up to end up in the middle of Albert Park Lake. Parks Victoria' rangers think the ride-share bikes were put there overnight by someone in a small boat. They have since been removed

And it is a city that's so well known for its street art. Artists got in on the action adding bikes to their toolkit of different artistic mediums.

[Newscaster] Oh, how very Melbourne. Grungy graffiti lane on one side, million-dollar house on the other, around the corner, this 11 dockless oBikes arranged in a rainbow.

And that's a good thing about Melbourne. It's on any corner, you get this kind of thing.

And our an Chethan was called in to give his opinion and of course he loved it, but he had to do his best. Please don't turn our bikes into cool art routine.

Very Melbournish but at end of the day, it is not there to be used for that purpose.

It's a great use of the oBikes.

Keeping it out of the era.

Although this piece of art was short-lived, it wasn't just street artists who had gotten in on the action, comedians had to go too.

I think it's fair to say we've all been walking around the city at some point and thought I wish I had a little yellow bike to-- We have a bike dumping system. You take the bike, rat it around then dump it wherever you like when you finished.

This is the Yarra river and this is the place most synonymous with the dumping of oBikes. And in fact, it became such a problem that the oBike company had to hire a boat and fish the bikes out of the Yarra.

[News Reporter] Hidden beneath the Yarra's surface dumped and damaged oBikes are dragged from the water.

As you can see this boat is already full. At least 25 oBikes have been picked up in a short 100 meter stretch of the Yarra river. And these workers still have to go all the way down towards Richmond.

[Julian] That count finished at 42.

We know Australians are free-spirited and they will get behind what we know to be the future of transportation. And we really urge them to sort of do it at a faster pace.

And I think they are some of the most iconic pictures of this whole saga. And at the time it's what a lot of people spoke about. Bikes being thrown in or fished out of the river. So two years later I wanted to know is it possible to go oBike fishing? Can I go and catch myself an aquatic oBike? To do this one of the first place I started was the mystery of the Albert Park Lake bike pile. Now I know this area well. It's in my neighborhood During my research, I couldn't see that anyone had actually pulled bikes out of the Lake. They had the Yarra, they had the Maribyrnong. So my theory was this. If people have put the effort to getting them onto a boat in the middle of the lake, surely some of them might've ended up at the bottom.

So one of the first things I did is I checked the Albert Park Lake website. It turns out that fishing is allowed in the Lake but only for licensed recreational fishing. So, five minutes and $10 later I was in. And you better believe that I signed up for my free fortnightly copy of Fish-e-Facts.

And I recruited my friend Glen to get in on the action and like all good projects we headed to Bunnings to start building out our oBike fishing rig. Then we headed to the lake. Now, it had rained in the day or two before we were there and the visibility in the lake was just awful. And the first attempts were a bit of a failure catching only a log or two. So, I live nearby and did some jogging during the lockdown period and saw something that I think is an oBike.

So we're gonna head there and try our luck. So while we couldn't see anything, I did try the spot where I remember seeing something which looked a bit like a bicycle and I caught something that I felt was an oBike. The two years of sediment buildup and my complete lack of gym routine meant that I personally couldn't move it. So I tagged out with Glen and took over the filming and this was it, our first oBike or maybe more correctly, our first half an oBike. It was a good feeling to have a win. And by now we were buoyed by our success. So we had another guy and we quickly found something else. Now this time it was properly stuck and genuinely needed both of us. And this took a lot of effort to get out. Oh, it's a twofer, is it?

[Glen] Can we do a double? And it was a double header as we recreational fishing inside. This was quite the catch. A lot of people in the park really liked what we're doing and stopped to get photos. So we took the bike home, gave an initial cleanup to see how useful it was and two years in lake is not great for any bikes. So it was in pretty poor condition. So to answer my own question it turns out, yes, oBike fishing is still a viable hobby By the start of 2018, councils the APA were getting more concerned about the business. Yarra oBike had become a city-wide meme but I wanted to understand what was happening more in the inside of the company. And I thought there was one person who could help.

Chethan. Hi.

Good to see you.

Good to see you.

So I joined in as the head of marketing and I'll do the conversations with the local councils. I did a lot of media, especially the days when the bikes were pulled out of the river. You know, there's a lot of media attention and it was part of that storytelling. It was a model. It was quite a brave or brazen in the sense to sort of go too soon, too quick but it was an effort, nonetheless I wasn't sort of just thinking about oBike as a thing. I was always sort of thinking about bike sharing. So my message was always around how can bike sharing be implemented into Melbourne or a city like Melbourne or cities around Australia. And then, how do people take it and how can we sort of have that smooth transition but obviously, what happened happened.

Chethan was a legend and shared a lot of interesting stories about his time there. And even though he had and continues to have a love for sustainable transport, could see what was wrong with the company and the business model. So we quit and actually took some time off to recover. And it was in the months following this, that things took a darker turn and really started to go bad.

[News Reporter] The attackers who were on oBikes, spotted their victims on the other side of the Yarra and rode over to rob them. Unattended bicycles have previously been used in other parts of the world as bombs and that could be repeated here.

Police being asked to help hunt down a vandal who threw a bicycle on a Metro train carrying 120 people. The oBike was thrown from the William Barak bridge--

I didn't want to have to say this but I think this shows the thin veneer of civilization that we are living under. If roll off the flies for shared bikes. Like we can't be trusted with making up our own rules. Like--

Oh, I'm with Rick, it's end of civilization.

A lot of the analysis at the time seemed to say this was a good system that people treated poorly. And this was most commonly summed up as this is why we can't have nice things. It was such a common form of analysis that I really think it's worth reflecting on here. It actually deconstructing. Is this true? Is that a good summary of what happened or is it a little bit more complex than that?

Firstly, the we in that phrase implies that Melbourne or Australia was an outlier in this program. And while it's true, we did put our own artistic spin on things, the fact is that every country that had oBikes had similar results. And it's worth noting that Melbourne has had bike-share systems both before and after oBikes without these problems. Melbourne academic Peter Chambers analysed the scheme and produced a fired up and in-depth article about it. And the central thesis was that oBikes was never really about bikes. In fact, the most spot on commentary at the time was by then Mayor Robert Doyle who said, "Let's get this plain: "It's not a bike-share scheme. "This is a way to generate enormous amounts "of venture capital. "That's their business model, "the whole point of it. "This is a kind of a shadowy organisation. "There is no investment in Melbourne, "in urban infrastructure in Melbourne, no rates "and they are privatising the public realm." This is a company that secured $45 million in venture funding and launched a cryptocurrency. But how well did they resource this program in Australia? Well, while it was always a small operation, it's believed that when it was in its final phase, they had one single employee for all of Australia. And it wasn't long before the government would clamp down.

OBike plague has been declared an environmental issue with the EPA stepping in. The Singapore-based operator will be fined $3,000 if oBikes blocking footpaths aren't removed within two hours.

This isn't a about cycling, this isn't about bikes, this is about a business that's come into Victoria with no regard for our environment.

The company's been notoriously difficult to contact and didn't respond to seven news requests for comments.

[Julian] So in their dying days, how did they respond? Well, one of the things they did was take the refund deposit button off their app. They then changed their terms of service so they could take your refund and convert it to 16 months of VIP membership just days before they shut the program down. And then the inevitable happened.

Bike-share company oBike is closing down in Melbourne.

Much maligned share-bike operator oBike could be about to abandon Melbourne less than 12 months after setting up on the city streets.

Hallelujah, oBike is the latest to go under.

And it wasn't just in Australia, the whole company went into liquidation transferring $10 million out of the country to Hong Kong in their final days with police investigating their misappropriation of funds and they still owe millions of dollars on refunds to users. So with oBike withdrawing from the country, with the company going into liquidation and with unpaid deposits, you might think that that's where the story ends. But as I researched this, what happened next was one of the most surprising things of this whole crazy story.

OBike wasn't the only big bike share system to go under at this time. So this means there were tens of thousands of bikes in China that was suddenly being liquidated. An entrepreneur from Myanmar, Mike Than Tun Win win saw this as an opportunity and he swooped in, recognising the need for transport for poor kids across his country to access school. He saw this as a once in a generation opportunity. He bought up thousands of bikes, navigated customs and has deployed them across the country. He set up a charity, Less Walk and it's turning this first world problem into a third world opportunity. And you can get in on it. For 35 US dollars, a donation will fund a bike and its deployment. While they've done a lot of deployments that I can't show you all of it, here's a montage that shows you one year of Less Walk.

And now over to you. I invite you to share this with anyone who loved or hated oBikes or maybe someone who threw one into the Yarra. If you enjoyed this, please subscribe for more and follow along with what we do with our arrow bike. I'm Julian O'Shea. That's it from me.