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oBike, Mobike, Ofo, Urbo: why are so many new cycle hire services launching in London?

oBike dockless hire bicycles in London
Brian Minkoff/Shutterstock

Back in July, hundreds of yellow bikes appeared overnight on the streets of London. Singaporean start-up oBike made 400 cycles available for ‘dockless’ hire, aiming to undercut TfL’s Santander Cycles. But after a couple of days the bikes were seen littering pavements across London, hanging from railings, dumped in the Thames and marooned on an island in Victoria Park. oDear.

oBike isn’t the only new bike hire service in town, though. Shortly after its launch, another company – Chinese start-up Mobike – made 750 red bikes available for hire in Ealing. Now two further schemes have launched: another Chinese company called Ofo, which launched 200 yellow bikes in Hackney yesterday, and the Irish company Urbo, which has made 250 green dockless bikes available in Waltham Forest from today.

What’s going on? Why are all these new ‘dockless’ schemes pitching up in London at the same time?

Dockless hire bikes are already ubiquitous in China. Mobike claims to have introduced a million cycles to 18 cities in its first year, and Ofo says it has 10 million users in 33 urban centres. Despite complaints about bikes being dumped or parked haphazardly by users – bad behaviour that the hire services discourage with incentives like points systems and limitations like geo-fencing – the dockless start-ups have grown fast and started to expand internationally. Now, after trials in UK cities like Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester, they’ve hit London.

Although the arrival of four different bike hire companies within three months looks like a deliberate cluster, the Mayor’s office says it’s just a coincidence. All four services have been working with different boroughs, and it makes sense to launch before summer ends and cycling starts to look like an uncomfortably damp way to get around.

But what about TfL? It’s more supportive of its commercial competitors than you might expect. ‘Dockless bikes have real potential to make cycling easier and more accessible,’ says Walking and Cycling Commissioner Will Norman, though he adds that ‘it is also important that the new operators work closely with local boroughs and TfL during and after their launch’. So as long as the newcomers co-operate with the powers that be, it’ll be easier than ever to get on yer bike.

Want a ride to call your own? Here are London’s best bike shops.

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