Saturday, 22 July 2017

Obikes London - a review

You'll have noticed them on a pavement or at a street corner in the past few days. There's a new set of players in town trying to lure you into taking them for a ride. They are wild and free; they don't need docking stations; the obikes are in town and they want your attentions.

Since I needed to pay Canada Water a visit, which is unhelpfully located outside the catchment zone of the TfL/Santander Cycle Hire scheme, I decided to take the opportunity to satisfy my curiosity by using one of those obikes to take myself there from Elephant and Castle. 

A similar hire scheme, called Mokibes, recently opened in Manchester and there's apparently been what we shall modestly call a few teething problems. Even the London scheme, where people are invited to leave the bikes near an official bike parking location, seems to have created some confusion, as seen in the image below I shot earlier this week.


I should probably mention here that I am a great fan and have been a dedicated and almost daily user of the so-called Boris Bikes/Kenny Farthings since the inception of the scheme (seven years ago almost to the day). Since that time, those bikes have been my main means of transport and I love using them.

So, having downloaded the undispensable obike app earlier in the week to have a little snoop around, I was pretty much ready to go and see what the new kid on the block had to offer. The obvious advantage for me is the option (as per my planned trip) to go where the red bikes wouldn't take me.

Finding a bike (photo below) and unlocking it was pretty straight forward and all worked very well. The bikes are currently free to use (normal cost is 50p for 30min - much cheaper to casual users than the established scheme), with only a (reduced) deposit of £29 to pay in-app (full deposit will be £49). 


This is however sadly pretty much where the fun stopped for me.

The bikes are much lighter than Cycle Hire ones and as such feel a little flimsy to someone used to the more sturdy option. I had to readjust the handle bars which had somehow been turned out of line with front wheel; something I never have to do normally.

As I do everytime I take a TfL bike, I had to adjust the seat height (I'm tall, you see). Unfortunately those bikes are not built for tall people. The seat stem is impossibly short and I ended up with my legs bent at 90 degree, when the recommended position is to be able to extend them fully for maximum power.

Still, I set off on what I had discovered earlier should be roughly a 15min ride to the east.

Unlike the older scheme, those bikes only have one speed (although that shouldn't be a problem for me as I only ever use the 3rd gear on the TfL bikes). Couple with the clumsy cycling position and some headwind, I often felt that I could have gone faster walking. I'm normally more or less able to keep up with slow traffic with the other scheme, which, I am convinced, affords me extra safety. Not being able to remotely keep up, is, I think, dangerous.

What I took to be an apparently ineffective gear twist (located on the right handle bar) is apparently in fact a bell, which already didn't work on my bike.

Very soon my legs started to ache in unusual places and to lose most stamina. I even had to resort several time to cycling standing, BMX style, for a little relief. I did manage to pick up a little speed when doing that, but it is not a position that can be kept for long.

In the end, I didn't even quite reach my planned destination before I decided to ditch the bike (in front of Canada Water's leisure centre) and finish my trip on foot. This had taken me 22 min according to the app and I was sweating like I haven't sweated for a very long time on one of my usual steeds.

There are a number of people who think the Santander bikes too ponderous and slow. Compared to the obikes, they are like the best-tuned racing machines and my love for them has only grown after today.

I am lucky enough to rarely have to go outside the cycle hire zone, so I would only have limited need for the obikes in the first place, but I will certainly do my utmost not to have to use them again. If I do end up using them, perhaps late at night in north-east London where I sometimes find myself, it will only be as far as the nearest docking station, where I'll quickly swap for one of the red bikes.

The app works fine, the availability is great but the scheme is totally being let down by the central piece of it, the bikes themselves. A real missed oppotunity.

See also:
Dockless Bikeshare in London – oBike is Here (for a more positive take)