16 Mar, 2019E27.CO
Due to a host of factors, I live in a neighbourhood that is about as far away from the Singapore city center as is functionally reasonable. A quick check of Google Maps suggests I live closer to JB Sentral than SG Central.
I bring this up because, as you start to get out of the main part of Singapore, the remains of the city-state’s failed bike-sharing experiment are still visible.
A walk in the park will still reveal the rusted-out skeletons of MoBike, ofo and the rare oBike. Even if a Good Samaritan wanted to clean them up, the bikes are so decomposed that it would require proper safety gear to avoid getting infected.
In some ways, these skeletons are a perfect metaphor for the bike-sharing industry as a whole: While most of the city can sweep away the problem and move on, there will still be a few stray reminders of the failed experiment.
Bike-sharing is now a “white whale” economy. It is ann idea that theoretically could transform a city (and make the Founder fabulously rich). It SHOULD work right? And yet, time and time again, it has failed.
In the US, bike-sharing has failed multiple times, but American car culture is so strong that it does not inherently doom the global industry.
For the past few years, it seemed like the Chinese ecosystem had figured it out. Even better, they had managed to outsource the service abroad. Sure, the companies were losing a lot of money, but ride-hailing companies also lose a lot money and they seem stable(ish).
Then it crashed, hard and fast.
Justin Hall, a Partner at Golden Gate Ventures, told Singapore Business Review, “I would say the poor unit economics, combined with high burn and tricky cash-flow issues, plus an uncertain, often oppressive, regulatory environment made the model untenable in Singapore.”
Now, the issue is whether Singapore will over-learn its lesson for the future. Will it embrace the death of bike-sharing as an example of the failure that we so often promote in the media? Or, is failing still unacceptable?
Bike-sharing was essentially a city-wide experiment, and, like all experiments, it was imperfect. Most obviously, it took public litter to another level. For tree-huggers like myself, the sheer volume of bikes being produced (and discarded) was disheartening.
But, overall, the results of the experiment was still a net-positive. To exemplify, let’s take a very broad tour of the history:
The launch of bike-sharing in the city was like a flash flood; one moment everyone was just zooming around on their US$500 electric scooters, the next, they were dodging people who were clearly riding a bicycle for the first time in years. The first few months were a bit overwhelming, but they were not necessarily bad.
At its peak, bike-sharing was everywhere, and, in my opinion, had a net-positive effect in Singapore. Yes, the system received legitimate criticism about wastefulness, civic responsibility and general selfishness, but it also allowed groups of friends (oftentimes teenagers) to bike around the city, it helped people exercise more and the bicycles presented an alternative to using cars.
Most interestingly, bike-sharing companies became a legitimate last-mile logistics service providers. Delivery people could save themselves the upfront cost of purchasing a scooter or a bicycle and use bike-sharing to speed up their service.
The end of bike-sharing was an unmitigated disaster. Who knows if the Founders of oBike will ever be allowed back into Singapore and ofo was forced to fire their entire island-wide operations (they handled it terribly). MoBike exited the city with its reputation in tact, but they still left.
The end of bike-sharing in Singapore was a bit like a relationship; even if the breakup was ugly, it does not mean the entire love story was ugly.
When founders, investors and media talk about embracing failure, this is what it looks like. It looks like broken bicycles, fired employees and, in the worst example, shady business practices.
If we are serious about being more tolerant of failure, then we need to give bike-sharing a pass. It needs to be remembered fondly as a quirky moment in local history that sort-of, kind-of, but probably-actually-did-not succeed.
Plus, what if it had worked? What if the original flood had died-down to reveal a sustainable river? What if the Singaporean culture began to rely on these bikes in the same way it does ride-hailing? Then, assuming that happened, what if it helped fix the city’s diabetes problem? Or lower its emissions output? That would probably be worth the risk, right?
Moving forward, we are in a nice little learning moment for future experiments.
Maybe this impossible burger thing will explode (although it is really expensive). Maybe bike-sharing was just the first step towards scooter-sharing (let’s pray not). Most likely, nobody actually knows what will hit because it is practically impossible to predict.
Whatever it is, when the next popular trend is forced upon us civilians, let’s just let it go for awhile.
I would guess we would discover that the end result is not that bad.
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