Ofo: We Need to Be Allowed to Deploy More Bikes to Effectively Serve the South Side

An Ofo bike in Beverly. Photo: Anne Alt
An Ofo bike in Beverly. Photo: Anne Alt

Three weeks after dockless bike-share debuted on the Far South Side, representatives from Ofo, one of the three companies that is currently permitted to operate, say Chicago’s low cap on the number of bikes and requirement for “lock-to” cycles is stunting the success of the pilot.

Companies like Ofo that use wheel-lock-only cycles are only allowed to deploy 50 bikes prior to July 1. After that date, all cycles must be lock-to models, with a built-in cable or U-lock for securing the bike to a rack, pole, or decommissioned parking meter, and up to 250 vehicles may be deployed. The two other dockless bike-share (“DoBi”) firms participating in the Chicago test are LimeBike, with wheel-lock cycles, and Pace, with lock-to bikes. Per the rules, Ofo and LimeBike currently have 50 vehicles each and Pace has 250.

Ofo spokesman Taylor Bennett told me the pilot is generally going well from his company’s perspective, with a positive response from residents and no significant issues with theft or vandalism. “We’ve really started to ingrain ourselves into the community and folks are quickly embracing the dockless model,” he said.

But Bennett added that “with only 50 bikes, it’s simply not enough to meet demand and effectively serve the entire area.” He said Ofo has been in talks with city staff “to craft smart rules that ensure everyone in the city can access more affordable, convenient transportation options.”

Bennet said Ofo reps have been doing outreach on the Far South Side about how to use and park the bikes properly, including parking them on the sidewalk near the curb so that they don’t obstruct pedestrians. He indicated that his company is trying to get Chicago to relax the lock-to requirement. “Effective local operations is the best solution to managing bikes, while a lock-to model simply creates a variety of new challenges for riders and the city,” he said. Companies with wheel-lock bikes argue that their model is superior because it doesn’t take parking spaces away from privately owned bikes. (The city of Chicago plans to install 100 new bike racks, funded by DoBi permitting fees, in the pilot area by the July 1 lock-to deadline.)

Ofo shared the text of an upcoming blog post by Chris Taylor, head of U.S. operations. Taylor, a native of Chicago’s Beverly neighborhood, which is part of the pilot area, wrote that dockless bike-share can play a significant role in improving transit access for South Siders, as well as saving them money and offering health benefits. “What if there was a bike on your block that you could hop on, and for $1, easily and quickly get to work, to school, to the grocery store, or to see friends and family?”

Taylor added that his company is prioritizing hiring local residents. “Critically, this allows us to take advantage of their local expertise and to help Ofo be a better partner in each neighborhood.” He also noted that Ofo is planning to introduce electrical-assist bikes, which will help shorten travel times on the South Side, where destinations are relatively spread out. (All of Chicago’s LimeBikes are currently e-bikes.) He also mentioned that his company is partnering with the transportation justice nonprofit Equiticity and the bike group We Keep You Rollin’ to donate hundreds of bikes to for a bike library project on the Far South Side. The company delivered about a dozen bikes for the library in January.

But, Like Taylor Bennett, Chris Taylor argued that Ofo is hamstrung by Chicago’s 50-bike rule for wheel-lock cycles. “With only 50 bikes on the ground for now, we are not expecting to turn Chicago upside-down,” Taylor wrote. “It’s a start and it’s where you come in to help. If we can show success in this pilot, we can begin to revolutionize the way people get around Chicago.”

The city’s DoBi permitting regulations require the vendors to keep no less than 15 percent of their fleet in each of the four quadrants of the pilot area, roughly dived by State Street and 103rd Street. Taylor Bennett said the Ofo team has been rebalancing their bikes daily to ensure that they meet this requirement.

However, bike advocate Anne Alt, who lives in Beverly, recently commented on Streetsblog that she’s been observing the movement and distribution of the all of the dockless bikes through in-person sightings, looking at the different apps, and getting observations from friends, and distribution hasn’t been very equitable so far. “LimeBikes are rarely going east of State Street. When Ofo bikes go east of State, they’re usually ending up at Chicago State University. The vast majority of LimeBike usage appears to be in the 19th Ward.” The ward includes parts of Beverly, which one of the more affluent and bike-friendly neighborhoods in the pilot area, and alderman Matthew O’Shea has been a DoBi booster.

Companies must rebalance their fleets daily so that no less that 15 percent of the bikes are in any of these quadrants at any time.
Companies must rebalance their fleets daily so that no less that 15 percent of the bikes are in any of these quadrants at any time.

Alt added that it appears that Pace, with five times as many bikes as each of its competitors, has had the most equitable distribution up to this point. “They’re the only company whose bikes are regularly appearing in Q4 on the map above (though most of those sightings are between State Street and Cottage Grove Avenue)” she said. “In Q3 and Q4, Chicago State University and Metra Electric stations appear to be the most popular destinations. Old Fashioned Donuts in Roseland also shows up among frequent Pace locations.”

In addition, Alt said that she hasn’t observed or heard about any company’s bikes going east of Stony Island Avenue. “So the East Side, South Deering and Hegewisch haven’t been getting any [bikes], and sightings in Riverdale have been rare (though they do have their own Ofo bike library.)”

It may, in fact, be challenging, to serve roughly one-fifth of the city’s area with only 50 bikes. However, if Alt’s observations are correct, it sounds like all three companies, including Ofo, need to do a better job of ensuring that the bikes wind up in all parts of the pilot area, not just the most lucrative locations.

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