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A week by ofo: What is it like to get around Norwich using only the dockless bikes?

PUBLISHED: 11:29 24 February 2018

Reporter Jacob Massey will be using ofo bikes as his only form of transport for a week. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Reporter Jacob Massey will be using ofo bikes as his only form of transport for a week. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2017

Last autumn, ofo launched its bike share scheme in Norwich. Reporter JACOB MASSEY will be using the bikes to get around the city for one week.

'Download. Unlock. Go.' - ofo bikes launch in Norwich.  Picture: ANTONY KELLY'Download. Unlock. Go.' - ofo bikes launch in Norwich. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

ofo announced itself to the city on October 31, spreading 200 of its distinctive bikes across the city.

By downloading the ofo app, riders are able to locate bikes and unlock them using bluetooth.

Bikes can be dropped off anywhere that it is legal to park and the journey is completed by relocking the bike.

The service costs 50p per half an hour, with a maximum charge of £5 per day.

oFo marshals retrieve bikes from River Wensum on Bishop Bridge. Picture: Nigel BrocksoFo marshals retrieve bikes from River Wensum on Bishop Bridge. Picture: Nigel Brocks

The Beijing-based company has spread to more than 180 cities across the globe and is the first scheme of its type to come to Norwich.

Its launch was greeted with a mix of excitement and apprehension in the city.

Commenting on an EDP online article announcing ofo’s arrival, Kensey said: “Excellent news, it’s about time Norwich had its own cycle scheme.”

While Neville J commented: “Without proper docking bays these bikes will get dumped everywhere and cause problems as they have elsewhere.”

Operations manager, Joseph Seal-Driver, at the launch of ofo bikes in Norwich. Picture: ANTONY KELLYOperations manager, Joseph Seal-Driver, at the launch of ofo bikes in Norwich. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

In the intervening months, numerous bikes have been vandalised, including several which were thrown in the River Wensum.

However, the fleet of yellow bikes has since grown to 350, to keep in line with demand, and the company employs 13 members of staff in the city.

Matthew Thomas-Keeping, ofo’s operations manager in Norwich, said: “We’re thrilled with the way the scheme is operating in Norwich. The city is perfectly suited to bike sharing and our fleet has proved hugely popular. The fact that they’re yellow has helped because people here identify with them.

“The level of vandalism has been extremely low and we have a great team of local marshals on the ground to deal with any issues.”

Despite the growing popularity of the service, not everybody in Norwich is convinced.

There have been complaints about the bikes blocking up pavements and some think they are an eyesore.

Riders have also reported being unable to access bikes which have been privately parked and have been unclear of how to report such infringements to marshals.

Conversely, the bikes have offered many an affordable, healthy, flexible and environmentally-friendly means of getting around the city.

Almost four months since their arrival in Norwich, our reporter will be giving the service a test ride.

Using the bikes as his only mode of transport for a week, he will see if he can indeed ‘unlock’ the city.

MONDAY

The first day of the challenge was characterised by rain and intriguing glances. If you’re going to be getting around in British February by using only communal bikes then you need to be prepared to carry a towel on your person at all times, as the old shopping bag tied over the seat technique is not an option. I doubt that such an amendment constitutes an infringement of the ofo terms of use, but the problem is you don’t know once you’ve parked up who might pinch your ride, and a bike that comes with a waterproof plastic bag seat cover is likely to be snapped up in no time.

That said, I forgot my towel on my second trip, but it was ok because I managed to wipe my seat down with a scrunched up piece of tissue I found deep in the recesses of my back pocket.

The first intriguing glance came from a gentleman who was inspecting a bike I was about to unlock. I stood back and allowed the man to assess, fearing that my bike was about to be unlocked by a different app user. However, it soon became clear that far from being an app user, this man was in fact absorbed by his first encounter with an ofo bike.

It seemed odd to me that he was so engrossed, which shows that I have become accustomed to them as an ordinary feature of the city. I suppose to the uninitiated, a bright yellow bike adorned with little buttons and barcodes parked unpadlocked in the middle of the pavement is a bit unusual.

The second intriguing glance came from Stewart White, the presenter from Look East. I was pedalling away as it piddled down and as I looked up there he was smiling from ear to ear. I can’t be sure whether he was delighted to see a man embracing a bike-sharing scheme or just smug because he wasn’t feeling a drop in his zipped and hooded cagoule.

Elm Hill, unsurprisingly, posed the greatest challenge of the day. According to the ofo website, the bikes are ‘purpose built for UK roads’, but whether they are purpose built for Norwich roads might be a different question. On the cobbles of the medieval streets it was difficult to steer and difficult on the rear.

Here’s hoping Tuesday is drier.

TUESDAY

Tuesday was not drier. It was much wetter in fact. Having spent my second day cycling in the rain, I can see why people may opt for the car or the bus. Even walking you have the option of an umbrella. To clarify, cycling with an umbrella is not an option. Even if you have the one-handed riding skills to pull it off, it just looks ridiculous. Plus, one strong gust and you risk being blown off.

However, ofo have been “thrilled” by their reception in the city, and considering they launched at the start of Britain’s bleakest season, it would seem the signs are good for the months ahead. In current conditions, the bikes offer an affordable, healthy, environmentally friendly but pretty unpleasant means of getting around. Come the long warm days of summer the bikes could become a convenient and enjoyable way for friends and families to get about the city - particularly for those who live outside of Norwich and cannot access the city on their own bikes.

On my ride home, I thought I would get a free hot chocolate from a cafe using another app on my phone. However, for reasons beyond my comprehension the app would not work and I was forced to cycle home hot chocolateless; it seems the world is not yet ready for someone to sip and cycle with an app based bike and beverage.

WEDNESDAY

Wednesday evenings I normally play 5 a side, and I normally get a lift from a teammate. I also normally leave it until the last minute to get ready for anything and am never early for anything. As such, I was in a bit of a rush as I marched towards the little yellow ofo icon on the app map. However, once I made it to the icon the bike was nowhere to be seen. There were bikes all around me but none were yellow and unlockable. I zoomed in on the map and tried to walk to the exact spot where the icon appeared, crossing and recrossing a zebra crossing in the process and irritating a few queuing cars.

After a good five minutes of scouring a four metre squared area I gave up - either the bike was not there or I had gone blind. I have had emails from people in the past complaining of people privatising the bikes in houses or gardens and making them unaccessible to other app users. I suspect the bike I was after had been stashed in the cellar of the bar I had been fruitlessly patrolling.

Hiding a bike like this is, of course, in breach of the terms of use. The whole premise of ofo is that the bikes are shared and the whole scheme relies to a degree on trust. The company encourages app users to report this sort of behaviour so that rule-breakers can be banned or penalised. It is vital that ofo cracks down on this sort of infringement because otherwise the service becomes unreliable. I ended up having to run across the city to the next available bike, which was not ideal match preparation (even though I did play fantastically as it happens).

However, the greatest onus is on app users not to abuse the scheme. Over population and climate change are issues that go hand in hand and any scheme which promotes sharing should be encouraged not undermined. If I did not have a teammate who could offer lifts, ofo would offer the ideal solution on Wednesday nights. I do not own a car and it is a few miles from my flat, where I do not have space to store a bike. As such, using ofo would be much quicker than walking and much cheaper than a bus or a taxi. I just hope the minority of users do not ruin the service for everyone else.

THURSDAY

At last, the sun remembered the fine city and my reward was a dry seat. No surprises then that this was the first day that I noticed lots of people getting about the city on the yellow bikes. As I was tracking down my first bike of the day three people cycled passed on them and with each I worriedly reloaded my map to check they were not making off on the bicycle I was pursuing.

Several people have quizzed me on this aspect of the scheme throughout the week. There seems to be a prevailing misconception that the bikes are rented for a certain period of time. When I explain to people that the ride ends when you lock the bike, they usually ask, “So what’s to stop someone from taking the bike once you’ve parked it?”. To which I reply, “Nothing.” At this point I am usually met with a look of baffled disapproval or giddy intrigue.

To the extremely regimented, the inherent lack of certainty implicit with this scheme may be unsettling, and not knowing how far your nearest bike is does mean you have to allow more leeway when timing journeys. On numerous occasions this week I have searched online to see how long it will take me to cycle to my destination but have not factored in the time additional time needed to locate a bike on foot.

Yet, for the more adventurous it is quite an interesting way of transforming your commute into a sort of game (I must admit, I still find it very satisfying every time I scan the QR code and the lock pings open). Plus, the scheme is predicated on saturating the city to the point that a bike is never too far way, hence ofo quickly increased its fleet in Norwich from 200 to 350 bikes.

FRIDAY

And so an interesting and enjoyable challenge draws to a close. To clarify, I’m back on foot this weekend, so it is really a working week by ofo... and I at least think it has been an interesting and enjoyable week.

By chance my final job of the week was to attend the bishop’s 25th anniversary service at the cathedral. There I was, riding an app based bluetooth bike to a building erected about 900 years ago. This felt like quite a fitting finale, for Norwich is a city which prides itself on both its beautiful heritage and its championing of forward-thinking innovation.

From my week using the service and my correspondences with readers, there seems to be a clear schism between those who think the bikes are a flawed eyesore and those who think they are a progressive boost to the city. It seems to me that which camp you sit in largely depends on whether or not you have used ofo. The vast majority of complaints are made by people who have no need for the service and have thus never tried it. Whereas for those whose circumstances suit the service, ofo offers a flexible, healthy, sustainable and affordable means of travel.

It is important though that ofo users behave responsibly and respect the trust the service relies on. There is a prevailing theory that people do not value that which they have not paid for and this seems to have been evidenced by incidences of vandalised and abandoned bikes across the city. If they are misused in this way then the bikes become a detriment to Norwich as a whole, not just app users.

But it seems the majority of people are using the app as intended and I hope that come summer misuse will be minimal and any teething problems will have been ironed out.

As for those who have no need for ofo bikes, think they are annoying and do not like seeing them everyday, I would encourage you to embrace them, or at least ignore them. I do not like Ed Sheeran and I think he is annoying and I do not like hearing him everyday, but I do not complain (much), because I know the pleasure he brings to many outweighs the annoyance he causes me.

Now it is at last time for my final cycle to the pub, where I will trade these two wheels in for feet.

Safe travels everyone.

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