This week, Ofo’s bright yellow bikes will join Spin’s orange and LimeBike’s green bikes on the streets of Seattle.
Unlike our first two bike-share companies to launch under a city pilot program, which got started in California, Ofo was among the first-ever dockless bike-share programs to launch in China.
Their Seattle kickoff marks their first official United States city launch. Ofo’s hosting their big kickoff this Thursday, August 17 at 1:30 p.m. at Art Marble 21 in South Lake Union, including food and helmet giveaways.
Grace Lin is Vice President of Ofo US, and is responsible for the company’s launch in the United States. Curbed Seattle spoke with Lin about Ofo’s Seattle launch details, expansion plans, and challenges.
Ofo launched their first generation of bikes back in summer 2015—and two years later, they’re in the middle of a global expansion. Their permit to launch in Seattle was just approved late last week. Meanwhile, they’re planning a big launch in Japan for this fall, and recently launched in in Bangkok, Vienna, and Cambridge.
Lin tells us that Ofo is operating in 170 cities, with a total fleet of 8 million bicycles and 25 million daily transactions. “Our mission is to unlock every corner of the world to make bicycles accessible anytime anywhere.”
Like LimeBike, they’re introducing their bikes slowly and carefully.
“We want to do it gradually,” said Lin, “so we want to start from a couple hundred bicycles and gradually grow this number into a thousand by the end of this month or very early next month.”
Those first couple hundred will start trickling into Seattle’s streets on Thursday afternoon. The initial bikes will have three gears, a front basket with a cupholder, adjustable seats, and airless tires. Lin tells us their bikes are lightweight—even more so than Spin or Limebike.
The unlocking process is familiar: Open a smartphone app and scan the QR code on the bike. A one-hour ride costs $1. Eventually, Lin told us, they’ll introduce other price models, like monthly or quarterly rates.
“We hope to make sure that those bikes are the most proper ones for people to use,” said Lin, explaining that they have several models that they could potentially roll out. “We will try different models to see which one works best for the Seattle market.”
“The one we’re going to launch is great, but we like to explore a lot of different things,” Lin explained. She said since they’re operating in many different countries, they’ve developed a “spectrum” of bicycles. “We believe in every market people’s needs are different, so we want to adjust to the most local audience and adjust it as much as possible to let our users have the best riding experience.”
One challenge specific to Seattle and cities with a similar topography: hills. We asked Lin if Ofo is worried about Seattle’s terrain. “For any like bike-share company, hills are a challenge,” she said. “But we believe that as long as the need, the demand is strong enough, that’s not the most important problem for us.”
She added that Ofo has a “very experienced rebalancing team” to go “collect those bicycles” left at the bottom of hills and place them back uphill. “We have designed a plan to make that work.”
Another notoriously challenging problem for Seattle bike shares is King County’s law requiring all cyclists to wear helmets. As with Spin and Limebike, Ofo’s app will remind users to wear helmets. “But as you know, people don’t like to share helmets, said Lin. “So it’s definitely not something we can provide together with the bike.”
We asked Lin about a problem that has plagued Ofo and dockless bike share programs as a whole: What about those photos of piles of broken bikes? Is that going to happen here?
“Although that picture has been used by many reporters in many articles, but that is a really rare thing,” said Lin. That’s not something that happens in China every day. Otherwise they wouldn’t be in use, right?”
“In any new industry users have a learning curve that they need to learn and need to adapt,” said Lin. “We make our maintenance system very efficient and make sure the bikes are repaired in time. We do a lot of rebalancing in China. if you go to China right now, it’s not possible to see it like that. It’s not something that’s happening right now.”
One program Ofo has developed to combat bad behavior is an incentive system, or “Ofo credit score,” to identify users that are a consistent problem. “If they contribute to the Ofo rider community we can add to their Ofo credit score, and if they do not behave we refuse their Ofo credit score,” explained Lin. “We use this incentive system to make sure all Ofo users are using the system correctly and properly and contribute to each other.”
So what if someone parks a bike properly, then someone comes along and kicks that bike into the street? “We definitely want to confirm if it’s this user’s behavior or not. We wouldn’t change people’s credit scores without confirmation. That’s not what we do.”
Like Spin and Limebike have also told us, Lin said Ofo is invested in solving the last-mile problem—which often refers to the journey between a commuter’s transit stop and home. “We believe when people can conveniently travel the last mile it can dramatically increase their use of public transportation,” said Lin. “We want to be a good part of public transportation... and we really hope our users enjoy their ride also.”