Milan Urban On two wheels

Mobike has brought new bikes to Milan. Bigger. Faster. Better?

Mobike has updated its fleet. I took a look at it. They now actually can hold some speed.

It’s not even a year that Mobike (and Ofo) first started their service in Milan. I wrote about it at a number of occasions. I’ve since kept making use of the service on occasions. Generally, I found myself to reach for Ofo’s bikes first. They generally appeared to be better suited to my size, their saddle’s would remain at height, and their three-gear system allowed me to go faster. Now, over the past week, I spotted that some Mobikes with a new paint job appeared in the city. Upon closer inspection, it turns out they are entirely different bikes. So, what’s in it?

Mobike 2.0 3.0

Back in September 2017, I took a ride on a Mobike and then wrote about my first impressions. Here’s the key section of that blog post. To put it short: I wasn’t very impressed.

The Mobike has only one gear. That’s okay by me. It increases durability. Gears on the BikeMi bikes are almost always not working as they should. But Milan is a flat city. It seems wise to me to pick a gear with which you can comfortably go with around 15-20km/h – a typical relaxed commuter speed. Instead, the default gear ratio is that of a climbers bike, and 15km/h is pretty much the maximum speed at high cadence, while the regular speed is likely just twice walking speed. That’s an odd choice.

Even worse is the saddle, or more precisely: the possible range of saddle height adjustments. At 172.5cm (5.6ft), I’m not exactly tall. Not even for Chinese standards. Yet, I can’t get the saddle high enough for me. As a consequence, pedaling feels terribly uncomfortable. And more difficult than it should, certainly at that gear ratio.

Which leads me to conclude: It’s a kids bike, not a decent commuter bike. Unfortunately, I’m afraid this will severely limit adoption rates beyond the initial tryout. It’s a lost chance. I’m just surprised not to find any similar comments on this online. It installs some hope in me that this might not be the international standard, and could change in the future.

So, with the advent of Mobike’s second generation of bikes in Italy, has it changed?

It’s actually Mobike Lite 3.0, according to their own naming scheme. Maybe I best start this comparison by showing the new Mobike next to its older sibling. Here you go. I went out and took a photo of two Mobike’s closeby. The first picture shows the Mobike Lite 3.0. The second picture is the original Mobike.

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The new bikes keep Mobike’s signature orange wheels. The saddle and handlebar are black, too. That’s where the similarities end. The striking new feature seems to be the orange-colored basket, but there’s more to it.

First, the new Mobike actually has full-size mudguards, whereas the previous version only had short stubs. At the slow speed at which you could ride the original Mobike, they were enough. And they looked fancy. But the new Mobike is faster. It needs real mudguards.

While the wheels still feature orange rims and blade spokes, they are now larger. As per the marketing communications, this shall tailor to taller people. And it will. On top of that, it’s also good news for shorter people. We know from the mountain bike world that larger wheels make for a more comfortable ride, as they easier roll over obstacles. On Milan’s cobble stones, you will notice that.

Next, the saddle has a new adjustment system. Originally, opening a lever on the saddle stem would move out the saddle to the desired height. Or: the maximum height. For almost anyone, the maximum height was still below the desired height. (Or below what the desired height should be.) Now, the mechanism is identical to the one on Ofo bikes. There’s a lever underneath the saddle nose which you need to pull. And the maximum height has increased to a point where it’s usable for normal-sized people. It’s still too short for tall people.

 

 

There are gears. Three of them. On the first sample bike that I rode, I couldn’t shift into any but the lowest. However, even the lowest has a more convenient gear ratio than the original Mobike. On a second trip, I found the second gear to be my preferred choice for commuting on the road, while I would use the first gear for accelerating and in shared spaces for pedestrians and cyclist. The third gear has too short of a gear ratio: the bike is too heavy to bring it up to the necessary speed. You’ll sweet and exhaust your legs. Maybe I’m just weak, but keep in mind that I’m not a slow cyclist.

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Finally, the basket has a distinct feature. It does not move with the handlebar. It’s not attached to the fork, which would rotate as you turn, but it’s attached to the front tube of the frame. As such, when you turn, you get the odd impression that the handlebar turns only with some delay. On my first ride, I thought the basket is broken. However, I suspect that this actually improves the stability of the basket. That pairs nicely with another secret feature. See the ring? You can fold it up, so that it tuns into a holder for your coffee-to-go.

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Less significant are other modifications. The kickstand has moved from the rear of the frame to the center. It’s now attached to the bottom bracket. The lock system is assembled at a slightly different angle and with more substantial support. The chain stays cross the seat tube and the down tube higher than the bottom bracket, which might increase the sturdiness of the frame. On the other side of the same equation, they are thinner and a bit lighter. Oh, and it’s worth to mention that overall the soldering on the frame has been done better.

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One note on that picture: It appears that the wheels follow some weird shapes. Ignore that. This was an effect that the warmth of the asphalt had on the photo. The wheels are in fact round and the blade spokes are straight.

Better?

Yes.

They are now not a pain to use anymore. By no means there’s anything exciting about them. They are plain standard bikes. But that’s progress. Previously, I found myself reaching out for Ofo if I could find one. With the new Mobike, I don’t feel the need anymore. They are now almost on the same level. Ofo bikes are still lighter and their pedal arms look less flimsy.

And the app?

In September, I complained the lack of usability, the latency, and inferior GPS accuracy of the app. Meanwhile, the app went through various updates, and I’m a much happier user now. There’s still the occasional crash, but it operates much faster and smoother. I don’t experience anymore situations in which I realize that waiting for the app had slowed me down so much that eventually I had been faster walking.

However, while I’m positive, I want to mention that the position of markers can still be ambiguous. Here’s how to cope with it. See, this is how it looks like when you open the app. You see a list of bikes nearby. Orange symbols are the original Mobikes and white symbols indicate the new Lite 3.0 models.

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So, where is the Lite 3.0 model just around the corner from the position marker? As it is placed in the center of this triangle, it could be in any of the three streets, or in a courtyard.

Now, here’s the same view, but I’ve zoomed in.

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The position is now clear. It’s in the street that marks the lower side of the triangle. Note that also the position of the original Mobikes has changed. The one to the right appeared to be in the middle of nowhere, but it’s in a street. The one to the left actually is less clear now. It appeared to be right in the upper diagonal street (Via Cronchetta), at the crossing with that small connecting street. And now? It looks like it’s parked on an open square adjacent to that connecting street. That was the case: I went and checked it out.

Take-away: bike positions in the default zoom level are not clear. You need to zoom in to get it right.

But do people use it anyways?

Based on Mobike’s stats, their bikes have accumulated almost 2 million kilometers since they started eight months ago. That number sounds impressive, but then consider that Mobike aimed to deploy 8,000 bikes in the city. Hence, each Mobike has been ridden for about 250km. In 8 months, this is about 1km a day. Somehow, these numbers don’t add up. Actually, Mobike reports 15,000 trips per day. That would be about 3,6 million trips in 8 months. Less than half a kilometer per trip. Really?

Well, it’s the official numbers that also Milan’s city council communicates. They also speak of more than 200,000 subscribers. That means that each subscriber has made about ten (!) trips. In eight months.

Personally, I’ve done 42 rides for a total of 90km on Mobikes. I’m an occasional, but not a frequent user. I’ve also used Ofo, which indicates to me 54km on 29 rides. I’ve indeed made a few rides that lasted less than a kilometer. The majority of my rides has been between 2 and 3 kilometers.

So, I think these numbers are somehow wrong. They are too low. Even though I would have expected low numbers. But if these numbers are true, then they are a disaster. Then by no means they express how well accepted these bike sharing systems are, but how little effect their addition had. Even in Florence, where they celebrate to have the highest rate of usage across Italy. Maybe I just don’t want to believe that, but certainly I do not believe that. You seem them being used.

You don’t see them being searched for anymore.

mobikemilano

(This graph displays search interest in “Mobike Milano”. It peaked around the time when the service was launched. The recent news on the updated fleet caused some tiny, insignificant bump.)

Fine. You don’t see them being used massively. You definitely see them being used less than initially. Maybe then this is a massive disappointment and people have been put off by its early problems. The quality of the bikes – now largely fixed – will have been one. The other one: (perceived) vandalism.

Free-floating bike sharing systems made-in-China have received more than their fair share of criticism. They essentially fill up the city with garbage that they don’t take responsibility for, some say. Mobike actually now has hired ten people that go around certain areas and check on the bikes. That’s an attempt to reduce the damage that is done to the bikes.

Mobikes have ended up in Milan’s waterways, on trees, and piled up in remote locations. This type of vandalism is what people are afraid of and why expansion into smaller municipalities got stuck here and there. Yet this type of vandalism is extremely uncommon. (While it’s a type of vandalism that frequently is done to private Dutch bikes. It’s really not a bike sharing thing. It’s a bike frequency thing.) The common situation is just that bikes are not handled well in usage. In fact: most bikes are in somewhat desperate conditions. Sometimes I wonder how people even manage to break them given to how my road bike has sustained rough Italian roads. Like this first ride on a second-generation Mobike: it was in service for two weeks and the shifting was completely out of sync.

But that said: I’ve made similar experiences with the car sharing fleet in Milan. Missing radio buttons… how does that even happen?

Overall, I do think they are a great addition to the city. They have not clogged up walking ways. But they’ve been of great value for me many times. Just this Tuesday, I’ll be coming back late in the night from a day trip to Florence. There’s little chance I’ll find a car sharing and public transport won’t be running. (They stop service early on labor day.) I might find a bike with which I can bridge to the next car sharing.

Still. If these numbers don’t increase… I honestly can’t see that we will get to experience the third generation.

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