Here’s Why the Chinese Bike-Sharing Startup Ofo Slammed the Brakes in the U.S.

July 26, 2018, 4:32 PM UTC
Dockless bike sharing bikes at Alameda RTD Station
Ofo bikes near a mass-transit station in Denver, Colorado. The bike-sharing startup has put its U.S. operations on hold, citing onerous regulations. Helen H. Richardson—Denver Post via Getty Images
Helen H. Richardson—Denver Post via Getty Images

Ofo, one of the world’s largest bike-sharing unicorns and an industry pioneer, is significantly scaling back its global operations, including cutting down services in the U.S. The move is the latest twist in a story of global competition among mobility companies—one in which Chinese tech giants Alibaba and Tencent and ride-hailing pioneers Uber and Lyft are all central characters.

Ofo, a Beijing-based start-up powered into the U.S. last summer, debuting 1,000 of its bright yellow bikes on the streets of Seattle. In the year since it has deployed 40,000 bicycles across 30 major cities. As recently as June, Ofo said it hoped to enter 100 U.S. cities by the end of the year

So it was a surprise when last week Ofo announced its U.S operations would be entering “sleep mode” instead. While it’s dozing, an estimated 70 of its 100 U.S. staff will lose their jobs as services stop in a number of cities. Three of its top U.S. executives have already left.

The company has placed heavy blame for its withdrawal on local legislation. In a statement the company said, “Ofo has begun to re-evaluate markets that present obstacles to new, green transit solutions, and prioritize growth in viable markets that support alternative transportation and allow us to continue to serve our customers.”

In China, Ofo and its rival Mobike were able to expand rapidly in a relatively unregulated environment, racing to secure dominance by flooding the streets with their bicycles. Authorities quietly acquiesced at first, but before long city streets were so inundated with bicycles that local governments were inclined to intervene.

Pictures from China of bikes cluttering sidewalks or piling up in dumps didn’t make great advertising material for their arrival in America, and U.S. lawmakers have been more cautious about welcoming the “dockless” bike-share model pioneered in China.

Most cities in the U.S. that have introduced dockless bikes have done so under pilot schemes, strictly limiting the number of bikes any company can deploy. In Washington, D.C., Ofo was limited to a fleet of just 400, which it claims was preventing it from achieving economies of scale.

America has a longer history of bike-sharing than China does, and local officials are more accustomed to the tidiness offered by traditional rental schemes where bikes are collected from and returned to designated docking points.

Uber vs. Lyft on two wheels

Here, the industry leader is a company called Motivate, which was recently acquired by Lyft for $250 million and will be rebranded as Lyft Bikes. The company is responsible for some 80% of bike rentals in America, often partnering with corporate sponsors to drum up revenues. In New York, its bikes are sponsored by Citi, and in San Francisco, the bikes are branded by Ford.

One company offering a different model of bike-sharing that could rival Motivate’s in the future is New York-based Jump. It was the first dockless bike-sharing scheme to obtain a license from San Francisco, which for years had offered Motivate an exclusive contract.

Jump’s pedal-assisted e-bikes (handy on Bay Area hills) have an integrated wheel lock, but also come with an optional U-lock, so that the bikes can be secured to stationary objects such as railings. This feature has saved it from falling afoul of regulators in Chicago, who mandated that bikes needed to be secured to railings when not in use ­– a decision that prompted Ofo to withdraw from the city earlier in July, with some resentment.

Uber bought Jump in April for an estimated $200 million. Uber was showing faith in what many see as Jump’s competitive edge: Motivate’s docked bicycle model is far more expensive than the dockless versions offered by Jump, and it’s not clear if the former’s valuable sponsorship deals will continue under Lyft’s ownership.

Uber and Lyft are also seeking to expand into e-scooters – a craze that has boomed in America over the last year, primarily led by Californian bike-share company Lime. Uber recently joined a fundraising round for Lime, which was one of the first to transplant the dockless bike model into the U.S., months before Ofo or Mobike arrived on its shores. With $467 million in funding, it claims to be the leading dockless bike share provider in the U.S.

Bike-sharing unicorns

Funding, naturally, has been vital for the rapid expansion of Ofo and Mobike too. Typical of tech in China, the two companies became proxies for the battle between Tencent and Alibaba, with the former backing Mobike and the latter championing Ofo.

Alibaba put its weight behind Ofo in March, leading an $866 million fundraising round and becoming a major investor. Alibaba’s affiliate Ant Financial and ride-hailing giant Didi had joined in previous rounds.

Ofo claimed to be valued at $2 billion last year, but Mobike appears to have pulled ahead in April when it was acquired by Meituan (also backed by Tencent) for $2.7 billion. Ofo CEO Dai Wei turned down a similar buyout bid from Didi the same month. Dai has said that he’s determined that Ofo should remain an independent brand, but the situation looks dire.

In May, Dai attempted to raise staff morale by launching the Victory initiative – an ambition to achieve just Rmb1 of profit, or around $0.15. To achieve that goal, Ofo has hastily retreated from a number of its overseas markets besides America, including Israel, Australia, Germany, most of India and locations in the U.K.

Much as Uber found tackling the Asian market as well as its home territory to be too ambitious, Chinese mobility companies might not be ready to occupy both hemispheres either.