A Sydney council has started impounding share bikes

Brook Mitchell/Getty ImagesA pile of Obikes in a local park in Bronte, Sydney.
  • The share bike phenomenon is less than a year old in Australia and like Uber before it, government is grappling with how to tackle the issue.
  • Six Sydney councils drew up a set of guidelines late last year on how the share bike companies should operate.
  • Waverley Council, in Sydney’s east, is unhappy with the response and this week began impounding bikes.

Waverley Council in Sydney’s eastern suburbs has begin impounding damaged or abandoned share bikes, and wants to charge operators up to $500 to return them, after Mayor John Wakefield warned them it was time to “clean up their act”.

A week after the council unanimously backed his plan to begin removing the bikes from the streets, rangers impounded 60 on Monday. It will cost $70 to get them back, but the council is currently seeking legal advice on whether it can charge up to $500 for their return under environmental legislation.

The region, which includes some of the city’s most famous beaches and tourism spots, including Bondi, Bronte, Rose Bay and Clovelly, has been grappling with the issue of dumped bikes for the last six months. The area’s hilly topography means the bikes are often ridden to the bottom of a hill, such as Bronte beach, and left there.

Last December, six Sydney councils developed guidelines on how bike sharing should work as they grappled with a flood of complaints about them being dumped across the city and suburbs.

The councils wanted the operators to share their data so they can get a clearer picture of demand and bike journeys and where bikes are deposited. A review of the response to the guidelines will be held this month, but at least two of the six mayors involved are less than impressed.

Waverley’s Mayor told Business Insider he met with the senior managers of one share bike company recently to seek the data on bike movements, but they refused to hand it over saying they were concerned about data security.

“I literally laughed in their faces,” the Mayor said. “We’ve got so much confidential information already that we’re legally bound to protect.”

The councils also wanted the companies to give council rangers access to the locking mechanisms if needed, and asked operators to respond to any build up of bikes in particular locations and maintain even distribution.

The dockless bicycle phenomenon began in Sydney last August (two months after they first arrived in Melbourne), via Singapore-based oBike. There are now four operators around the city, including Australian-based ReddyGo and two Chinese companies, Ofo and Mobike.

More than 3,000 share bikes are now believed to be located in Sydney.

The councils gave the operators three months to clean up their act, promising a subsequent review. Waverley is the first to act on the issue.

Mayor John Wakefield is less than impressed with the companies he’s dealt with, which were warned last week that the council would take more drastic measures.

“These guys are not good corporate citizens and they need to clean up their act,” he said.

“They need to manage their operation in a way that does not cause public disruption and the collection and redistribution of bikes must be a priority for the operators.”

The Mayor added that one of the key problems is that a number of the bikes have been hacked and are now being used as joyrides.

“We know that a large number of their bikes have been uncoupled from the system,” he said.

In Wakefield’s view, the bikes from four different operators fall into three categories and for the most part, they seem willing to tolerate a high level of wastage.

“The first type is the ones that are wrecked and thrown into parks and beaches,” he said.

“The second is the group that have been ‘uncoupled’ from their data networks and are being used without any interaction with the company.

“The remainder are the functional ones, but they’re strewn all over the footpath, outside homes and shops, on beaches and in parks and are without helmets, which makes them illegal to ride anyway.”

A lack of helmets is a key concern. In NSW it’s illegal to ride a bike without a helmet — doing so attracts a $319 fine.

Waverley Council rangers began impounding bikes from streets, parks and beaches from Monday. Bikes left upright with a helmet attached in areas where they don’t cause an obstruction were left in situ.

The council is also seeking legal advice on whether it can use Protection of the Environment legislation to declare abandoned and damaged bikes dumped rubbish and force the owners to remove them under a clean up order that also includes a $500 fee.

“We support shares bikes, but we prefer them docked and the current negatives need to be minimised,” Wakefield said.

A spokesperson for one operator, ofo, said it had a team who regularly check for indiscriminately parked or broken bikes.

“In the cases of indiscriminately parked bikes or broken bikes, we do encourage users and the media to report it through our Facebook channels or through the report function on the ofo app,” they said.

“Based on the urgency of the reports received, we will prioritize the retrieval of each bike so as to ensure public safety. ofo is working closely with various city councils to ensure that our bike sharing services are enjoyed and benefitting our users.”

ofo said there have been 320,000 trips on its bikes across Sydney since launch.

Inner West Council Mayor Darvy Byrne agreed there was a problem, but expressed concern that impounding the bikes would add to the costs for ratepayers.

“These operators have been offered a carrot, one simple set of rules, but if they won’t take it they’ll have to be given the stick instead,” he said.

“With only a few weeks left until the end of the trial period, they haven’t done enough to lift their game.”

While Waverley plans to “recycle” the bikes it has impounded if operators don’t claim them within a month, Mayor Byrne said he was unsure if that was the right way to go for all councils.

“We need to think carefully about what action we take, we don’t want to transfer the cost burden of picking up the bikes to our ratepayers, which could occur through simply impounding bikes.”

Both Mayors expressed disappointment with the state government in its failure to tackle the issue.

In the last two years, the NSW government launched a major crackdown on road cyclists, increasing fines for a range of offences and even threatening cyclists with a loss of points on their driver’s licence.

Wakefield said that in contrast, the share bike companies were allowed to operate without a licence or permit because the state government acted to deal with the legal issues.

Byrne says: “A tender or licensing system, in which only the most professional operators are allowed to have bikes on the street, could be the way to go.”

A City of Sydney spokesperson said the council found bike share operators to be responsive to its request and had no plans to follow Waverley’s plan.

Darcy Byrne says that as the three-month trial of the new guidelines for share bikes concludes, he plans to convene a meeting of Mayors this month to review it and “decide on a collective course of action”.

“We do need one simple system across Sydney that protects public safety and allows bike share to succeed,” he said.

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