Third time lucky? Why Uber Jump’s e-bike scheme might just work in Melbourne

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Earlier this morning, roughly 400 bright red e-bikes were deployed around inner city Melbourne. The bikes belong to a company called Jump — the e-bike and e-scooter wing of ride-share giant Uber — which, as of today, is now in 33 cities around the world.

Jump’s arrival has been the subject of much media attention in recent weeks and that’s only set to intensify. After all, Melbourne hasn’t had the best relationship with bike share schemes in the past few years.

The blue bikes of the state-government-backed Melbourne Bike Share (MBS) scheme lasted for nearly a decade but were eventually sent packing in August 2019 due to a lack of use. And the dockless oBike scheme lasted less than a year before being forced out of town following widespread discontent from local authorities and the public.

So as Jump begins its one-year trial in Melbourne, and as the city comes to terms with the sight of bright red e-bikes, a handful of questions spring to mind: Will these e-bikes actually get used? Will they end up in the Yarra River like oBikes did? And ultimately, is Uber Jump doomed to fail, just like its predecessors?

It just might work

At first glance it’s hard to see how Uber Jump will be successful. Why should this venture be successful when others weren’t? Why will people ride these bikes if they didn’t ride previous offerings?

Well, there’s a bunch of things that set Jump apart from MBS and oBike, and, taken together, they might just add up to success.

These are e-bikes

The biggest difference with Uber Jump is that these aren’t just regular bikes: they’re e-bikes. Thanks to a 250W motor, cruising up Melbourne’s often-steep streets will be far easier than it was with MBS and oBike. And getting around the city will certainly be faster with a motor. Plus, as anyone that’s ridden an e-bike can attest, they’re just fun.

They’re harder to abuse

The image that will perhaps define oBike’s short-lived visit to Melbourne is that of yellow bikes being fished out of the Yarra River en masse. Bikes ended up in all sorts of other places too — on roofs, up trees, and dumped unceremoniously in piles on inner city footpaths.

The same will likely happen to some extent with Uber Jump but it won’t happen nearly as much. For a start, at 32 kg, these bikes are seriously heavy. oBikes were heavy enough at 23 kg — hoisting an additional 9 kg over a handrail and into the Yarra will be hard enough to deter all but the most motivated of vandals. The same goes for other inappropriate resting places, like up trees.

It’s backed by Uber

One of the barriers to entry with oBike was the need to download a proprietary app, connect a credit card and pay a deposit, all before you could ride. Using MBS was a little less onerous. Jump has the advantage of being part of the Uber ecosystem — you hire bikes through the existing Uber smartphone app rather than having to download an app just for Jump. Given most would-be riders will already have Uber on their phone, spontaneous rides will be easier than ever.

Not only that, but riders who use the bikes inappropriately — including taking them beyond the borders of the relevant council areas — will be charged penalty fees through their Uber account, and might even have their Uber account suspended.

“If we find people are misusing these bikes, we will remove their access from the app and not just the Jump app but also Uber Eats and Uber,” said Jump general manager Henry Greenacre.

Presumably users will be more inclined to treat Jump e-bikes with respect if their transport and takeaway food privileges are on the line.

Jump is working closely with local councils

Take a read of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that Uber has signed with the three councils hosting the trial (Melbourne City Council, Port Phillip Council and Yarra City Council). This is a document written by organisations that have been scarred by the oBike experience.

The 17-page MOU is full of strict guidelines to ensure that Uber Jump is set up and operating properly from the start — the City of Melbourne and friends won’t stand for another rogue operator turning up and wreaking havoc.

According to the MOU, here are just some of the things Jump must do:

– Provide education and training for users on how to park the bikes safely (e.g. off footpaths) and follow relevant laws
– “Be responsible for the activity and costs of retrieving abandoned bicycles from parks, waterways and public land”
– Meet regularly with council to “identify and remedy any issues that arise for either party”
– Provide a $50,000 surety to the councils for the duration of the trial (to be drawn on for public clean-up etc.)
– Provide a huge swathe of bike usage data to the councils
– Move any “dangerously placed” bikes (e.g. parked on a road) within two hours
– Immediately deactivate any “faulty, damaged or unsafe” bike, and collect or repair the bike within 12 hours
– Have customer service and operations staff available 24/7 to respond to issues
– “Employ staff based in Metropolitan Melbourne under normal conditions of stable ongoing employment …”

The trial will be evaluated quarterly and terminated if any terms of the MOU are breached.

What this all means is that, from the very start, Uber Jump is beholden to strict guidelines that it needs to obey. It won’t survive long if bikes end up strewn in unsightly piles, blocking footpaths or polluting waterways. If the company is going to sign up to such strict guidelines, and hand over $50,000 for the privilege of being in Melbourne, you would like to think it will do its best to make a good go of it.

Left: There were no bikes in Melbourne on Tuesday afternoon. Center: By Wednesday morning the bikes had been placed and the geofenced area had been set up. Right: There are a bunch of “no parking zones” throughout Melbourne including, not surprisingly, the Yarra River. All screenshots are from the Uber app.

Questions that remain

Despite the promise that Uber Jump seems to have, there are some issues that may prove problematic.

Mandatory helmet laws

Ah yes, helmets (cue the outrage in the comments section). Regardless of whether you think helmets should be mandatory in Melbourne or not, the law says that they currently are. And so Jump has a responsibility (as per its MOU) to provide a helmet with each bike.

As both oBike and MBS found out, supplying helmets isn’t quite as easy as just putting out one per bike. Helmets get stolen, misplaced and damaged — plus offering a helmet that many others have sweated in isn’t a way to make your service more appealing. Subsidised helmets were made available at local 7-Eleven stores for MBS but the extra availability didn’t seem to make much of a difference.

In short, Victoria’s helmet laws are likely to be a barrier to entry for some, just as they were with previous schemes. And it’s hard to see an immediate solution to this problem.

There are other transport options

It’s hard to know exactly why MBS was only getting one ride per bike per day towards the end, but part of it could be the result of other transport options in the area. Trams in Melbourne’s city centre are a free, relatively quick, and mostly painless way to get around (so long as you aren’t too precious about personal space). MBS was arguably none of those things.

Uber Jump might find that it also struggles in the face of more appealing options for short, cross-town journeys.

Rider safety

Again, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why previous schemes weren’t ridden but we do know that there’s a perception that riding in Melbourne isn’t safe. It’s hard to see how that perception will change with Uber Jump, even if the bikes are faster.

Image: Paul Wasneski

The cost

For most applications, using an Uber Jump e-bike will likely be more expensive than either of its two predecessors: $1 to unlock the bike then 30c per minute. Contrast that with roughly $2 per half hour for oBike (after you’d paid the refundable $69 deposit) and $3 per day (for unlimited rides of up to half an hour) with MBS.

It makes sense that an e-bike offering would be more expensive — the technology is costlier, the 24/7 servicing is more expensive, and plus, it’s faster to get around on an e-bike than it would be on a regular bike. Still, will users be content to pay $5.50 for a 15-minute ride, or $10 for half an hour? At first glance these prices seem a little high.

From here

As noted, Uber Jump will be in Melbourne on a one-year trial, the goal of which will be for councils to “understand how the bikes are being used and make sure the service is working for the community.” Jump and the councils will meet every quarter to assess the system, look at usage rates, and deal with any issues that crop up.

Additional councils can join the MOU should they wish, meaning that if things go well, Jump e-bikes could be available beyond the inner city. Further bikes could be added to the system too, assuming that the councils agree.

It’s natural to feel sceptical of Jump’s foray into the Melbourne market, particularly given that its two predecessors both went extinct in the past two years. And as noted above, it’s unlikely to be completely smooth sailing. But don’t write Jump off just yet — there’s enough that’s new and different about this scheme that it just might be a case of third time lucky.

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