oBikes suffered from the “tragedy of the commons”

By Leith van Onselen

Bike sharing company oBikes has announced that it will leave Melbourne following the Victorian Government’s crack-down on the company, which classified abandoned bikes as litter and potentially liable for $3,000 fines. From The ABC:

…oBike announced it would abandon its problematic local hire scheme.

…the distinctive yellow bicycles quickly caused headaches as people dumped them on footpaths and streets.

Others have been thrown into waterways, including the Yarra River, found up trees and on roofs, and been converted into street art.

Lord Mayor Sally Capp said the City of Melbourne was now working with the company to remove the bikes.

She recommended people stop using the service…

Every morning as the sun rises I go for a long walk around my suburb of Ashburton. No matter what route I take – the Gardiners Creek trail, the local golf course, the Anniversary Trail, or through side streets – I am regularly confronted with abandoned oBikes.

In fact, during the recent Clean Up Australia Day, around half a dozen obikes were fished out of Gardiners Creek in the small stretch near the East Malvern Golf Course.

To say these bikes had become an eyesore is an understatement.

It’s the same around the world, where similar bike sharing programs have failed. China, for example, has been forced to remove literally tens-of-thousands of dumped bikes from its cities. Whereas in the UK, bikes have been hacked, vandalized and thrown on railway tracks.

oBikes is a neat case study in the “tragedy of the commons”: an economic theory coined in 1833 by the British economist William Forster Lloyd that describes a situation where individuals using a shared resource often act according to their own interests and to the detriment of the shared resource.

Basically, because nobody owns or values the bikes, and there is little threat of punishment, some people have treated the bikes poorly to the detriment of everybody else.

It’s one of the key roadblocks of a ‘sharing economy’: ensuring that ‘shared’ items are used in an appropriate manner that maximises overall wellbeing.

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  1. The Dutch experimented with free bikes years ago and they often ended up in canals. So no surprises really.

  2. its nothing like tragedy of the commons – the bikes are owned by a private company and rented out for a fee.
    The people of Melbourne never had any claim to ownership
    Only the responsibility of paying for their disposal

    • Ronin8317MEMBER

      The original theory applies to common land in Britain which is owned by the lord of the manor, however the ‘commoners’ have access to it. So it is very much like the oBike system.

      • St JacquesMEMBER

        And it’s a typical economics garbage theory based on somebody’s fanciful ideas. Think about it, the commons was a valuable asset for the villagers, how long do you think they would tolerate one of their number abusing it?

      • Like the queen owns Australian national parks: they weren’t getting charged to use it by the hour

      • St Jacques,

        Yes, it certainly does have a whiff of a theory that conveniently justifies the Lord putting a fence around the commons and telling everyone to nick off.

        They still exist in NSW…..tragedy must strike commons less consistently than the theory suggests.

        Interesting reading the excuses trundled out by the government.

        The ripper is the one about common ownership possibly denying access to someone.

        Privatisation however would provide the comforting certainty that everyone would be denied access!

    • I agree exactly Coming. Actual commons had rules of usership which were enforced. The whole theory was mis-named.

      • Not to mention operated successfully for hundreds of years until the industrial revolution made charging rent far more lucrative and the enclosures acts were passed.

  3. StephenMEMBER

    And for fun I….
    a. put an O-bike in the tree
    b. throw dunny roll and crap all over the joint in public toilets
    c. watch my dog drop a brown donkey at the park and walk the other way
    d.. all of the above

  4. It could be argued that people created new urban sculptures with these bikes. Sophistry perhaps but better than most politicians could offer.

  5. Interesting 1833 theory, thanks for sharing. My favourite remains the one thrown over the embankment on the Sandringham line and now being overgrown and increasingly out of sight.

  6. Overlooks the fact that the Obikes were using and often undermining a shared resource, public space and amenity. They were frequently left in unsightly and dangerous locations.

    Let’s face it, share bikes are litter and the service is rubbish.

    A better scheme would be to put resources into secure bike parking so people can provide their own bikes, or just more frequent and flexible public transport.

    • HadronCollision

      Mate shared with me some of the public bike services in Melb – showers, lockers etc

    • Yes, a private business should not get use of the public space for free. The business would have worked out better if they negotiated storage locations at rail stations, bus stations, libraries, other private businesses etc.
      Although all it really did wrong was not partcipate in the games of mates that has allowed huge swaths of public land to be transferred to private interests at below market rates.

    • They do have rules that the bikes should be left in a public bike parking area, they have data on where bikes are left from the GPS, but they don’t enforce the rules, probably don’t have resources to even check, and quite possibly don’t want to enforce their rules as official bike parking spots can be few and far between. They work well in Singapore for going from the MRT parking to the HDB flat parking.

  7. Maybe shared electric scooters may fare better. In America they have them and there is a financial incentive for people to collect the and charge them at their homes and then place them properly on the street once recharged. The company that owns the scooters pays per scooter charged.

    It’s a little bit like how in NSW once recyclable bottles became worth 10 cents each – barely see any bottle litter.

    • kiwikarynMEMBER

      The problem would be fixed if they were electronically locked into a docking station, and could only be released by a payment, which would continue to be charged until the bike/scooter is redocked. You could then incentivise people/companies to provide the docking stations on their properties (eg. a shared revenue model), so people have somewhere to leave the bike/scooter that isnt in public space.

      • Yes – renting space to vending machine owners is a popular earner in Japan. Plus the resulting competition means that the prices of the products are about 50% of the extortionate prices in vending machines in Sydney.

        A rack that holds 10 bikes would not take much space. $10 a day hire per bike. $700 per week. Split 50/50 with the bike company. Could be a goer.

      • kiwikarynMEMBER

        Wouldnt even need a rack. A single docking station in someone’s driveway by their mailbox would be sufficient, if multiple homes in every street had them. Companies in the city, shopping malls, and transport stations would have room for racks. The whole idea of just leaving them wherever is just stupid.

  8. Neither tragic nor related to the commons – some capitalists tried a business idea which affected third parties adversely and were told to go away, in language at least as polite. Fair play to them for trying something, but it’s not all that different to operating a pub near a residential area – if you can’t restrain your customers from urinating on people’s front doors on the way home after closing, you’ll probably lose your liquor licence.

  9. Electric bikes are old hat. Electric scooters are where its at. We can probably get away with riding them without a helmet, unlike for bikes where those nanny state laws are applied.

      • helmet laws for scooters vary by state. In WA you don’t need a helmet, but it is illegal for the scooter to be electric.

  10. Entirely predictable behaviour from the bogan classes.
    And people think ‘sharing’ is going to work with autonomous vehicles that will be an order of magnitude higher in capital cost!
    Not without some heavy penalties for damage.

    • Don’t kid yourself V.
      “Bogans” are just more blatant or obvious regarding their behaviour.
      We are a nation of Bogans.
      From the very bottom, all the way to the very top.
      Despite the fact that those at the top should know better.

      • yeborskyMEMBER

        I resemble that remark. We only need to model ourselves on the likes of the Silver Bodgie, Harold (be back shortly) Holt, Singo, the Waterhouse clan, Bondie, the Packers, the Waterhouse clan, to name just a few. That done, we’ll hold our heads high in every polite, respected company. Oh, and Joh, of course.

      • Bogans are the world over, they are just called by different names. The CCP has implanted their own version of bogans in Oz, just they speak Chinese so it’s hard to tell.

      • Mining BoganMEMBER

        The most obvious ones are the debt-propelled, young professional types. The lack of self-awareness among them is mind-boggling.

        Don’t like being laughed at either…

  11. That’s why I don’t like to share anything with people too poor to afford their own bike. But I also don’t like to share anything with cyclists generally.

    • yeborskyMEMBER

      Especially the footpaths with men in Lycra and their bikes when they’re having a quiet coffee for an hour or so.

  12. Completely ignorant of psychological imprinting on a atomistic individualism supply side culture.

    • They do have a deposit, the bike is returned by locking the wheel. The problem is non customers come and pick up the locked bike and vandalise it.

      • And what happens to the deposit if the bicycle disappears?

        I wonder if criminals are taking these bicycles to scrap metal recyclers to get a few bucks.

  13. Interesting that it can’t work in Australia but is successful in other countries. Works great in Singapore. Would be a good subject for academic analysis of the differing outcomes.