Update: On Friday, the city of College Station reinstated Ofo’s license to operate in the city.
Each of the 2,300 yellow Ofo bikes in College Station will be collected and donated, repurposed or recycled at the end of the fall semester. Texas A&M University will be parting ways with the Chinese bike-sharing company less than a year after entering an exclusive agreement, officials confirmed Thursday.
The city of College Station revoked Ofo's license to operate in the city on Oct. 12 after learning that the company's auto liability insurance had been canceled, which also prevented its employees from accessing the vans they use to collect bikes around town. Ofo is currently working through a 10-day appeals period, which ends today, but Texas A&M will be seeking a new bike-share vendor for 2019.
The program has been popular since its launch in February, growing from 850 to 2,300 bikes with more than 39,500 registered users. More than 330,000 miles have been logged on over 500,000 rides, but the yellow bikes proved to be a polarizing issue as they began to litter roads, sidewalks and trees on the Texas A&M campus and wider Bryan-College Station community. The College Station City Council established a permitting process and set of rules for bike-share companies that went into effect in mid-August, giving the city control over the program's geo-fence and setting a relocation fee for improperly parked bikes that the company didn't move.
Special Projects Manager Aubrey Nettles told the College Station City Council that few improperly parked bikes had to be relocated until the insurance issues occurred. As of Thursday, the city had received 395 complaints. Code enforcement officers have had to relocate 50 bikes that the company had failed to move -- operators are required to remove bikes reported as parked improperly or outside of the program's geo-fenced areas within a set time frame -- which resulted in about 24 staff hours per week on the task.
The company's escrow account with the city, which was required as part of the new regulations, has a negative balance, Nettles said. Ofo has also been issued 13 citations for every day it has continued operate in the city without a permit. Nettles said Ofo now has updated auto liability insurance, but it must replenish its escrow account and form plans for communication and rebalancing its bikes before the permit can be reinstated.
Ofo laid off 70 percent of its U.S.-based employees this summer, leaving College Station as one of the few remaining presences it had in the country. With significantly less resources, Nettles told the council that the company likely could no longer efficiently and effectively operate.
Ron Steedly, Texas A&M's alternative transportation manager, said the university will be seeking an alternative vendor for 2019. Texas A&M will have more operational control in the new system, he said, and will require as part of the new vendor capabilities a 24/7 call center, more direct communication with bad actors and the capability to end rides only in designated areas.
That new company will need to obtain a permit with the city before deployment of bikes occurs, unlike the Ofo rollout earlier this year. Fleet deployment will also be incremental. Steedly told council members Thursday that he remains confident that College Station can be a successful proving ground for bike-sharing, which has had issues in major cities across the country.
"I think we're gonna be the site in the United States that actually proves that it is possible," Steedly said.
Councilman James Benham said that he asks residents not to write off the concept because of Ofo's poorly executed rollout, but described the company's actions as "negligent" at best and "nefarious" at worst. Mayor Karl Mooney, a Texas A&M University employee who rides the bikes around campus, said bike-sharing is a "great, efficient, green type of activity that I think more people should be involved in," but he stressed more education for riders and a "more significant" rebalancing fee for future vendors.
Nettles said she'd like to see bike-sharing be successful outside of campus before looking into electric bikes or scooters, but said the council could amend its ordinance to allow those, if desired. Steedly said he wasn't interested in electric options at this time, needing pedal bikes to be successful first.