So long Ofo: Bike-share company is leaving Chicago because of lock requirements | Transportation | Chicago Reader

So long Ofo: Bike-share company is leaving Chicago because of lock requirements 

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click to enlarge Kids use Ofo bikes from We Keep You Rollin's bike library during a recent group ride. - WE KEEP YOU ROLLIN'
  • Kids use Ofo bikes from We Keep You Rollin's bike library during a recent group ride.
  • WE KEEP YOU ROLLIN'

And then there were three. Beijing-based Ofo, one of the four vendors participating in Chicago's far-south-side pilot of dockless bike-share ("DoBi") technology, is taking its marbles and going home. The Beijing-based company, which deployed 50 wheel-lock-only cycles when the test launched in early May, announced today that it is dropping out because the city hasn't raised the cap for those kind of bikes. On June 29 the Chicago Department of Transportation changed the DoBi permitting guidelines to allow companies to release 350 "lock-to" cycles, which have built-in cable locks or U-locks for securing them to a fixed object.

All wheel-lock-only cycles, which can easily block sidewalks or be stolen or vandalized, were supposed to be off the streets by July 1 according to the original permit requirements. But CDOT also tweaked the rules to allow Ofo and fellow wheel-lock bike purveyor LimeBike to maintain their small fleets. Last week LimeBike expressed its displeasure with the still-restrictive rules by launching an online petition urging the city to raise the number of wheel-lock bikes allowed and expand the pilot area. A few dozen people have signed the petition so far.

Ofo, however, apparently lost patience with a scenario where its lock-to competitors in Chicago, Pace and Jump (which was recently purchased by Uber), are allowed to deploy seven times as many bikes. In a press release, Ofo blasted the updated permit rules, arguing that they "constrain certain companies and prevent them from providing meaningful service in the plot area."

"It's been a pleasure serving the far south side over the past two months, but unfortunately the city's restrictive regulations have made it impossible for us to continue providing our more accessible and convenient transit option," Ofo said in a statement. "We will continue to work with city officials and hope to one day again offer affordable mobility solutions to everyone across Chicago."

Ofo also argued that the issues associated with wheel-lock bikes could be solved by having companies "commit to operational excellence, close collaborations with cities, and rider education." The company asserted that Chicago's lock-to preference "chooses winners and losers instead of letting consumers decide which product and service is best for them."

In addition, Ofo claimed that, like wheel-lock bikes, lock-to bikes can also block sidewalks and that, "while a bike or e-scooter locked only by the back tire can easily be moved, a bike locked to a fixed object requires the next rider, the operator, or local authorities to unlock it." Of course, private bikes U-locked to fixed objects are also difficult to remove, but people generally don't see that as being a problem.

Ofo went on to argue that on-street bike corrals, designated DoBi parking zones, and diligent work by the companies' rebalancing crews to relocate errant cycles can provide the same benefits as bikes that can be locked to bike racks and poles.

One point that the company didn't explicitly bring up is that since Pace and Jump can deploy a total of up to 700 lock-to bikes, those cycles could take up a significant amount of parking space on the far south side, which has a lower density of racks than many north-side neighborhoods. That could mean fewer parking spots for private bikes. To address this issue CDOT is installing 100 racks in the pilot area using permitting revenue, and Pace is installing 25 racks on private property that it says may be used by all DoBi or personal bike riders.

Ofo spokesman Jordan Levine says that, despite leaving the Chicago pilot, his company still plans to fulfill its commitment to provide 100 cycles later this year for a low-tech "bike library" being operated on the far south side by the We Keep You Rollin' bike group. So far Ofo has given the group about a dozen cycles, which it has been loaning out to residents.  v

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