Shared bikes in Singapore used as clothing racks, dangled from bridges and abandoned at shipyards
Bike-sharing operators deploy marshals around Singapore to retrieve bicycles, some of which turn up in surprising places
By Cynthia Choo
A bicycle locked outside a flat and used as a clothing rack; another dangling from a bridge, just above a pond. Others left behind in shipyards.
These are just some of the bizarre places where shared bicycles have been found, bicycle marshals and operation leaders in Singapore told TODAY.
Hired by bike-sharing operators, these marshals are deployed across the island to locate and rearrange indiscriminately parked bicycles, repair damaged parts and redistribute the bicycles to areas with high demand. Most use a mobile application to locate these bicycles.
Operator Ofo, for instance, deploys around 200 part-time bicycle marshals and operational zone leaders daily. The team is split into six zones around the island, with each leader overseeing an area.
“The bicycles don’t get rearranged magically. Someone goes around to tidy them up … we are committed to growing the marshal team if necessary,” said the bike sharing operator’s head of policy and communications for Southeast Asia Christopher Hilton.
Mr Lim How Kiat, 28, an Ofo zone leader in charge of the Central region, covering the Marina Bay and Suntec area, had once found a bicycle that was dangling from a bridge.
“When I saw it, I couldn’t help but think that it must have been (the act of) a mischievous user who wanted to push the bike into the water, but somehow the bicycle got stuck,” he recounted. “I had to push and nudge the bike out into the water, before I could retrieve it.”
On another occasion, he was alerted to a bicycle parked outside a Housing and Development Board flat.
“I was shocked when I saw the bicycle had been turned into a clothing rack. It was fixed with so many cable ties and clothes pegs, even a short plastic rod was attached … trying to pry and cut all of them off was very difficult,” said Mr Lim.
Rearranging, redeploying, repairing
Handling such extreme cases of indiscriminately parked bicycles is just a fraction of the work marshals do every day.
When TODAY followed Ofo’s marshals on Tuesday (March 27) morning, the first stop was to City Hall MRT, where the team was greeted with five illegally parked bicycles, strewn on the grass patch outside an underpass exit.
Over the course of the day, part-time bicycle marshal Khairul Nafis rearranged some 80 bicycles, shifting them from pavements, entrances of shopping malls and MRT stations to proper parking zones, usually demarcated by yellow boxes.
On some days, he can reorganise up to 120 bikes. “I can travel up to 60km a day rounding up indiscriminately parked bicycles,” said the 22-year-old, who travels on foot and bicycle.
When needed, he uses the Allen key provided by Ofo to make small repairs such as fixing loose seats and handlebars.
Marshals are given Ofo stickers and cable ties to identify bicycles that cannot be repaired on the spot. “These stickers (pasted on the bikes) will notify the users to not use the damaged bikes. The cable ties will be used to tie the back tyre with the rear mud guard of the damaged bike to prevent any potential use of the bikes, which have already been placed at the yellow boxes or any lorry accessible location,” said Mr Nafis, who is awaiting enrolment into university.
Over at SG Bike, Mr Syed Al-Syahab, 26, an operation supervisor for the firm, said he rearranges and repairs at least 100 indiscriminately parked bicycles a day.
SG Bike, which is a smaller player in the industry compared to the likes of Ofo, Mobike and oBike, has about 12 staff members – seven are full-time staff – on patrol from 9am to 6pm daily. This is on top of an emergency response team that attends to reports of vandalised bicycles round the clock.
“We have a smaller team of operational staff that reorganises the bicycles, because our Geostation technology prompts users to park their bikes near our designated parking zones,” said SG Bike chief operating officer Sean Tay.
The technology uses radio-frequency identification. When a bike is not parked within 5m of the designated space, it will start beeping. The user’s mobile application will also issue notifications. Users who do not re-park the bicycles properly will incur a fine of S$1 (US$0.76). Repeated offenders might face higher penalty charges.
Still, the operator’s bikes are not always parked correctly. Some had previously been found at shipyards. “During those times, we even had to get clearance to go and retrieve our bicycles, which can be problematic,” said Mr Tay.
From bike movers to ambassadors
Mr Tay said that the company plans to enhance the role of its on-the-ground team.
Beyond moving bicycles form one point to another, the operational team will become ambassadors and educate users on proper behaviour.
They are, after all, users’ first point of contact with the company.
For instance, Mr Syed, who has been working in his current role for six months, said he is occasionally interrupted at work by “concerned aunties and uncles”, who quiz him about the indiscriminately parked bicycles in their estate.
“When I’m rearranging the bicycles, they’ll ask me how come there are so many all over the place, why is it so messy … I become a bit of a ‘target’ for them to voice their concerns, but I still take the time to explain what I am doing, and inform them about the issue, telling them that users can be more proactive,” said Mr Syed, who added that these residents then give him a pat on the back for his hard work.