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Tag Archives: helmet

oBike Bike Sharing in Rome

18 Apr

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Last Saturday I had the ambitious plan to take a long walk from my house to a chapel I had been wanting to visit in San Giovanni. Google said it would take me an hour, but I was fairly certain it would be around 40 minutes or less.

By the time I was about two-thirds done with my walk, I was huffing, puffing, and ready to be done. Out of nowhere, on a random street corner, there was a yellow oBike, just sitting there. Tired of walking, and armed only with my cell phone, I decided I’d try my luck and see if I could sign up on the spot and get the bike to finish my trip.

Signing up for oBike

I was slightly amused by the fact that the oBike instructions on the bicycle itself are in German, thus reminding me of how our northern European counterparts are much more likely to tool around their cities on a bike.

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Let’s face it, folks: Rome has never been known as a cyclist’s dream city. Great cities for cycling are relatively flat, like Amsterdam. And also—north of here. While it’s ambitious to try to “green up” the Eternal City, Romans are notoriously committed to their cars. Not to mention the fact that Rome is also famously known as the City of Seven Hills.

And yet, oBike, a young Singapore startup, launched in Rome last November and has been adding to its local fleet ever since. In an article last December, oBike’s Italy director said, and I quote: “The problems and the complexities of a megalopolis like Rome don’t scare us.” His courage is honorable, but whether the service can actually succeed in Rome where multiple others have come before it and failed, remains to be seen.

In any case, let’s cut to the chase: sign-up is a breeze. With my smartphone’s data connection, in a matter of minutes I was able to download the oBike app, sign in with Facebook, and connect my Paypal account for payment. There is a €5 refundable deposit (shown as a €45 discount off of the normal €50 deposit price) and a minimum account balance of €5 required to start.

Unlocking and locking the oBike

The oBike uses your phone’s app and Bluetooth connection to control the lock, a black and metal ring located around the back tire. The lock opens automatically when you activate the current bike through the app.

When you’re ready to end your trip and park the bike, you have to manually slide the lock back into place. You also need to keep your phone’s Bluetooth connection active at the same time, so the app can register the bike as locked and properly end your trip.

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To locate a bike, the app uses a map to show you where the bikes currently are, and allow you to select one. You can reserve it for 10 minutes before you reach it to unlock it; or, if you see a bike parked in the city you can approach it and use the app to unlock it. You do this by scanning its QR code, which is located on the top of the handlebars.

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The bike starts off with a minimum 50-cent charge, and then costs just 50 cents for each 30-minute period thereafter. You can also get a “VIP Card” through the app, which allows you to pay a set fee to keep the bicycle for an extended period of time (€1.50/24 hours; €2.99/3 days; €4.99/7 days; €9.99/30 days; €19.99/90 days). You can pay using a credit card or a Paypal account.

oBike operating areas in Rome and parking

You can ride the oBike wherever you want throughout the city, but you are only allowed to park it in specific areas of the city. The app marks the non-designated parking zones of the city in red. oBike told me the current parking zones include the I and II municipalities (roughly the entire historic center, Trastevere and the Vatican as well as north Rome up to the Salaria), as well as parts of the V and VIII municipalities. For tourists this is probably sufficient.

Since the bike has its own autonomous locking system, you can basically just leave it wherever you choose. This being Rome, people definitely do just that, hence the random bike I encountered during my walk, which was parked smack-dab in the middle of a traffic island at a busy intersection. The app’s map designates small blue areas where it encourages you to park, and you can earn reward credit points for doing so.

Credit point system

I live just south of the designated parking areas, and so I unknowingly parked in the red zone when I ended my journey back home. I was alerted to this error by the app after I locked the bike. The app told me it was docking my account 10 credits. That’s when I discovered the point penalty system oBike uses to incentivize its users to park appropriately.

When you sign up, you get 100 points to start with. You can earn extra points by doing certain things, such as parking in the blue areas designated on the app’s map, reporting broken bikes or improperly parked bikes, or sharing your ride information on Facebook. oBike said it’s counting on this “community” aspect to deter theft and vandalism.

Losing points makes the service fee incrementally rise. You get docked for things like:

  • parking in the unauthorized city zones (10 points, red zone on the app’s map);
  • forgetting to lock the bike, without it being stolen (20 points);
  • breaking traffic laws, adding your own lock, losing the bike, or illegally transporting the bike (reduces your credit to zero).

Customer service

I hadn’t noticed the red zone on the app, and since I had picked the bike up literally in the middle of an intersection, I hadn’t taken the time to study or learn the system beforehand. I was sort of ticked off that I got points docked, because the authorized and unauthorized zones didn’t seem clear to me or easy to understand. I hadn’t seen any red zone on the map. I wrote to customer service to ask them why I was docked points. I thought this would also be a good test to see how responsive they are.

I wrote on a Saturday and was told I’d get an initial response within 48 hours. I actually didn’t get the response until Tuesday morning, asking for my account number since I had signed up through Facebook, so they could look at my specific trip information. I responded, and less than 24 hours later I received a nice note explaining that I had, in fact, parked in a red zone, but they would re-credit the points to my account, which they did.

Problem resolved, and I finally had information about the specific zones where the bikes can be parked, which I shared above. I do see the red areas on the zone map now, too. I think I probably just hadn’t looked well enough, so it was nice of them to credit me anyways.

Practical considerations and tips

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Bike sharing is an ambitious and idealistic notion here in Rome. I hate to be the typical Roman pessimist, because I’d really like to see this service succeed here, but once again, Rome is not a hospitable place at all for cyclists, unfortunately. Here are some pros and cons to the service, as I see them.

oBike bike sharing in Rome pros:

  • Fun way to get around the city if you don’t want to rent a scooter
  • Cheap
  • Easy to sign up, easy to use
  • No set parking lots; park bike anywhere within designated city zones
  • Bike basket makes it easy to transport small items like a purse or shopping bag
  • Lots of bikes in the city; oBike told me in the email they sent that they recently increased the fleet in Rome, which in December was reported to already be 1,900 bikes in the trial phase
  • App provides lots of fun information such as a map tracking your trip and a count of calories burned and kg of carbon emissions reduced; your trips are saved in a tab in your account profile

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oBike bike sharing in Rome cons:

  • City bikes without gears or electric pedal assist are hard to pedal up Rome’s numerous hilly and sloped areas
  • No helmets, so you have to provide your own, or risk going without (there’s no bicycle helmet law in Rome)
  • Rome has little to no public bike parking, forcing you to park the bike “creatively” on sidewalks or other random areas
  • Bike paths are virtually non-existent in Rome, making the danger of riding a bicycle likely much higher than that of even a motorino scooter

Only time will tell if oBike, whose ambitious motto is “the future of transportation,” is able to break the curse of repeated failures by other bike sharing services in Rome. A similar Hong Kong-based company, GoBee Bike, recently bit the dust after a valiant attempt, citing that “nearly 60% of our European fleet got either damaged, stolen or privatized.” Yikes. (Granted, The Guardian reports that service allowed users to “leave the bike anywhere, unlocked [emphasis added].” Doh.)

In addition to its home country of Singapore, where it launched its first 1,000 bikes in February 2017, oBike is also available in the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Belgium, France, Sweden, and Norway.

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