ofo launches in Seattle, but their goal is ‘unlocking every corner of the world’

In story after story about ofo, writers trained to capitalize company names write “Ofo.” But there’s a reason to type the name in all lowercase letters: The typography looks a bit like someone riding a bike. ofo

This is part of the $2 billion company’s global strategy, a name that transcends language much like the humble bicycles they hope to offer the whole world.

“Our founders from the beginning thought that the bicycle is a global language,” said VP of ofo U.S. Grace Lin, “that bicycles can be a link to connect people and a way for people to live more healthily and extend their reach.”

And the Beijing-based company’s stated goal is enormous: “To unlock every corner of the world, and to make bicycles accessible to anyone, anytime, anywhere,” said Lin.

And though that sounds like a lot of bluster, ofo already has more than 8 million bicycles in operation, mostly in China, and claims to serve more than 25 million daily rides.

To top that off, ofo received $700 million in venture capital last month with its eyes set on global expansion. And Seattle is their first city in the United States. By the end of the year, the company hopes to be in more than ten U.S. cities.

“In a few months or in a year” Lin said she hopes many people across North America “will make bike share a part of their transportation options.”

So far, there are a few hundred ofo bikes on Seattle streets, and the company is rolling more out gradually and consistently. Maintenance staff will scale up as the number of bikes increases. Their permit allows up to 1,000 bikes now, increasing to 2,000 September 7.

But though the company is getting started about a month later the Spin and LimeBike, its huge amount of investment capital puts the company in a potentially strong position for next phase of Seattle’s bike share experiment that is scheduled to start October 7. That’s when the caps on bike share numbers will be lifted, and the search for the city’s saturation point begins.

But though ofo is quite comfortable launching tens of thousands of bikes in a city, they are treading more patiently in Seattle.

“We don’t want to be aggressive in Seattle,” said Lin. “We want to get to know the audience and get to know the members really well.”

In the grand vision, however, Lin said she could see the Seattle region handling as many as 20,000 bikes or more. But the company is not looking to bring too many bikes too quickly.

And ofo is already learning some lessons about their bikes. They have heard a lot of feedback about their baskets being too shallow, so they are planning to upgrade them. And the cup holder in the basket is of questionable utility (my water bottle, which fits well in both a car cupholders and bicycle bottle cages, tipped over immediately in the ofo basket).

And though the company launched with three-speed bikes instead of their standard single-speed bikes, the lowest gear is not low enough to allow riders to sit down while pedaling up hills like Pine Street from downtown to Capitol Hill. LimeBike remains the best option for hill climbing.

Lin said the company may try out some single speed bikes in Seattle to see how people like them. Many users prefer the simplicity of a single-speed bike, she said.

I asked Lin if the company operates in any other hilly cities, and she pointed to Chongqing, China.

“We have a lot of experience operating in cities that are hilly,” said Lin. And though “some bikes aggregated at the bottom of the hill,” she said, “staff collect them and put them in the right place.”

The ofo bikes in Seattle feel well-designed for taller people, with very high handlebars that make it feel almost like riding a chopper if you are a shorter person. I imagine there are some people who will love that style, and some who won’t.

One of the biggest differences about the bike is the front headlight, which does not turn on automatically. ofo lights are powered by a bottle dynamo, so it only turns on if you flip a metal lever that moves the generator so it makes contact with the rim of the front wheel. As the wheel turns, it spins the generator and powers the headlight.

This style of generator light is common in many parts of the world, but not so much in the US these days. There may be a bit of a learning curve for people using them for the first time during dark conditions, but it works. There is a bit more drag when using the ofo headlight compared to the hub dynamos more common in the US, the style both Spin and LimeBike use. So I imagine most ofo users who are familiar with the headlights will disengage them during the daytime.

The locks on the ofo bikes also feature a keypad, though the mobile app is currently the only was to access the bikes. But the keypad could signal plans for other ways to purchase rides. Spin and LimeBike both recently announced ways for people who don’t have smart phones, data plans or credit/debit cards to access their bikes. Perhaps ofo’s keypad will help them break down those barriers, too.

ofo rides also cost $1, but unlike Spin and LimeBike’s 30 minutes, your ofo dollar gets you an hour. Most trips on Spin and LimeBike are around 16 or 17 minutes, so perhaps the hour isn’t such a big deal. But it’s a bit of pricing competition for a service that is already very affordable to access.

Have you tried an ofo bike yet? How did it go?

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22 Responses to ofo launches in Seattle, but their goal is ‘unlocking every corner of the world’

  1. Lynne says:

    I was going to try ofo last weekend, but the bike I found already had no saddle.

    I’m glad they are addressing the pitiful baskets.

  2. Fish says:

    I’m short (5’7″) and I did not find the Ofo to be very comfortable. My arms felt tired after a mile with the high handlebars and I thought the bike was way too upright. Even on the ship canal trail, I felt like I needed to get out of the saddle especially with the limited gearing. I was not going to even attempt the climb up Emerson to Magnolia. But don’t get me wrong, for $1 for a 30 min ride–I’m not expecting much. But compared to the Limebike, I would pay an additional $1 for the gearing and the comfort of that bike. Head-to-head with Spinbike, I’m not sure which I would choose. So glad we have all these options now!

  3. S. Rose says:

    WRT the lighting system – is there any charge storage, or does the light turn off immediately the bicycle stops moving?

  4. ScottA says:

    I just downloaded the ofo app and tried to enter my debit card number. After a few attempts I got a call from my bank’s fraud detection system asking if I authorized $0 transactions. Turns out ofo is a Singapore based account as far as my bank’s system is concerned and I don’t have a travel notice currently with my bank so the preauthorization of my card failed.
    I was also surprised the ofo app didn’t allow for taking an image of my card like Lime and/or Spin did to get the info off the card.
    Seems like they should really have a US-based bank for US customers to skip the fraud detection systems.

  5. Joseph Singer says:

    I have not seen any ofo bikes at all anywhere. I’ve seen (very) few Spin bikes and lots of Lime bikes. At least from my observation it appears that there are more Lime bikes in use.

  6. Roly-Poly says:

    As with the other two services, great idea but it needs work. I’m really excited about this transportation option and hope all the kinks get worked out.

    ofo
    Like: $1/hour, maps of previous rides
    Don’t like: too tall handlebars, too short seatpost, meager 3 gears, a “low” gear that seemed a little tough even for a seasoned cyclist on a flat trail, annoying “P” pins on map (are those supposed to be bike racks?) obscure the bicycle pins (I don’t care where racks are when I haven’t even found a bike yet)
    Undecided: credit/demerit system for making customers accountable for bad behavior (Up for a challenge? Try finding the rules for getting/losing credits in the app.)

    Spin
    Like: Apple Pay, only one of the 3 services with a seat post that adjusts high enough for a 6′ rider (less than 1 standard deviation from avg male)
    Don’t like: meager 3 gears (I know they say they plan to fix that)

    Lime
    Like: GEARS!!, maps of previous rides
    Don’t like: too short seat post

    All services: I haven’t found any info in the apps indicating where I’m allowed to ride. I’d assumed only within Seattle city limits but both Spin and Lime show bikes available clear out on the East side. Ofo warns you’ll be docked 20 credits (you start with 100 and lose biking privileges if you get to zero) for parking outside the geofence but doesn’t specify the limit of the geofence.

    • sb says:

      How do the three differ if a user doesn’t lock the bike at the end of their trip?

      • Breadbaker says:

        Insofar as I can tell, you pretty much have to lock the bike to stop the app charging you for the bike. I won’t leave the bike until I get a “ride ended” message on the app (I once parked a bikeshare bike in Vienna without getting the light to turn green and had to return to the dock (some distance from where I was when I discovered this) to push it in (I was lucky it wasn’t stolen).

      • Roly-Poly says:

        Yeah, locking ends the ride counter. In addition, ofo docks you 50 of your 100 points for failing to lock the bike. Not sure if there are any repercussions with the other services besides a running meter.

    • Alex says:

      The way I’ve been describing ofo to my friends is “Do you love the short seat post of LimeBike but hate the seven gears? Then ofo is for you! And hey, there’s a cup holder!”

  7. I tried an ofo bike today, decent ride. I’m 6’4 and it was a much better fit that the Lime bikes. The three gears were not working very well but my couple of mile ride along the waterfront was flat so it didn’t matter. Didn’t use the basket but it looked pretty shallow.

    The Lime bikes are great for the extra gears, but the seat post does not extend high enough for tall people. Spin bikes have a longer seat post but again only three gears. Great to have options but the ideal set up for me would be a Lime bike with a longer seat post or a Spin/ofo with more gears.

    • Lynne says:

      Lime has definitely heard the seatpost criticism. I’m 5’5″ and it’s too sort for me. They say they will fix it.

      • Drew says:

        I was told they will fix seatposts by mid September. Not sure if that will apply to new bikes or all bikes.

  8. Rebecca Roush says:

    I rode ofo for the first time yesterday, with the intent of getting from 5th and King to 13th and King. I had to bail out less than half-way there. This was surprising, because compared to other Seattle hills, it’s not that big a grade.
    I emailed them to let them know that I can’t their bicycles, unless they change the gearing.

  9. Drew says:

    Tom, I would love an article about how these companies are rebalancing or Planning to rebalance. I am amazed at the lack of bikes at Capitol Hill station which is where I need them. I can’t tell if anyone has started rebalancing yet but it certainly doesn’t seem like there is enough rebalancing happening. Unfortunately, the only reliable way I have found to have a bike at cap hill station at 5 is to grab one at UW station and bring it with me. I would hope that bike share allows us to reduce crowding bikes on trains, not encourage it.

  10. JAT says:

    Am I the only one who finds this new station-less approach kind of annoying for all the haphazard congestion of the pedestrian space? I know the rule is they’re to be left in the “furniture” area of the sidewalk, but there’s no way to enforce that, and not to get all Ratso Rizzo, but hey, I’m walkin’ here!

    • Lynne says:

      You’re not the only one. To those of us who really want bike share as an option, it’s really disheartening to see the bikes mistreated and to see users treat pedestrians the way car driver treat us. Worse, some people are not walkin’ here, they are using wheelchairs.

      I move them when I see them blocking, but I do wish I was more hopeful about the general public’s ability to be courteous.

    • Roly-Poly says:

      That’s something I fear — the problem of poorly parked bikes can only become a bigger challenge as more bikes are deployed. I hope that riders, bike companies and the city are thoughtful enough and responsible enough to figure out how to make it work well for everyone.

      You may have seen some of the disheartening (to use Lynne’s apt word) reports about the messy result of massive launches in China:
      https://phys.org/news/2017-05-china-scrambles-bike-chaos.html
      https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/mar/22/bike-wars-dockless-china-millions-bicycles-hangzhou

      Knowing where to park might just be a matter of climbing the learning curve; but these services will attract a lot of people who are either new to the city or new to cycling. I think that means more responsibility falls on the city and bike companies to make it easy for riders to do the right thing. If it takes too long to figure out how to make it work in an orderly way, city council members will start receiving angry letters.

    • Al Dimond says:

      Google’s G-Bike program (mostly relevant in its larger Silicon Valley campuses) has had similar issues throughout its life, where sometimes inconsiderately parked bikes cause accessibility problems. They’ve also found some wander way off the grid, some get stolen, and some get dumped in creeks and stuff. Despite all this, the bikes remain useful and popular.

      As on a large campus, in Seattle it would be impossible to comprehensively police behavior. There are just too many bad places to leave a bike. Seattle does have plenty of experience with spot-enforcement/encouragement/education programs, and for encouragement/education campaigns you don’t need anything but volunteers. I think ideally the companies would step up to the plate on this, but I think they’re all based out-of-town and I’m not sure how much they care.

    • Tristan says:

      I was grousing about the public space taken by these bikes the other day when I paused and took a minute to look at the whole streetscape. Even in a spot where there were 5 or so bikes parked on the sidewalk, the space taken up by them was dwarfed by the amount of public space taken up by cars parked in the street. So I suggest these bikes should be allowed to park in the street too, to free up the pedestrian space, like how Car2go can park anywhere. If they get up to 20000 bikes in Seattle sidewalk congestion will definitely become more of a problem.

      I’m very optimistic about bike share getting more people biking and have seen a lot of folks using them who look like they may not have otherwise ridden, ie people in suits.

  11. Charlie says:

    Haven’t ridden ofo yet (God I hate non-capitalized proper nouns) but rode the other two and very much share the concerns of other folks here (I’m 6 feet tall so Lime is useless to me and Spin is way to hard to ride with so few gears. Have no interest in trying another 3-gear bike in Seattle).

    Here’s my real concern with the new bike shares (and Pronto too): I’m an everyday rider cause I own a bike. Rarely do I find myself out without a bike and wanting one so I am not the target audience. I assume the target is likely people who dont usually ride bikes and that seems to be who they get (based on who I see riding and how comfortable they look on a bike). But these bikes seem so universally uncomfortable, not well suited for Seattle and clunky/wobbly, that I wonder if all these new riders (whether tourists or Seattleites tying the the new system out) are trying them and then deciding, “Well that wasn’t fun. In fact it was hard, awkward and I felt silly and unsafe. I guess bike riding isn’t for me.” Coupled with our….lackluster and disconnected bike infrastructure, I can easily see this as a recipe for never getting on a bike again.

    It’s really unfortunate because with a little more thought and planning on the part of all these companies (did no one at Lime find someone over 5’8″ to test during Beta? Did no one at Spin think that the gear shifting on those bikes was junk? Did ofo really not put a bag in their basket?) this could have been an opportunity to get more people excited about riding.

  12. AC says:

    I don’t think that they should be left in the middle of sidewalks. If they end up cluttering everything up, then they’re asking to be banned eventually.

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