The landscape of Melbourne and Sydney is literally littered with oBikes.

The bike-share service, which has found huge success in Singapore, uses a “dockless” locking function that means the bikes can be left anywhere convenient for riders: footpaths, rooftops, at the bottom of rivers and even within local artworks.

However Australia’s failure to use a bike-share product in good faith is not necessarily due to the country being home to a pack of ungrateful animals — at least, not entirely. According to behavioural economist Brendan Markey-Towler, it’s because the service has not translated well into an Australian context.

“The big problem with engineering any sort of change here is obtaining a state of what we call ‘substitutability’,” he told Crikey.

“That is, taking a current course of action and substituting it for a new course of action to achieve a roughly equivalent outcome. In this case, it’s ‘can I get from A to B as easily with these new technologies like oBikes?’.”

He says the series of adjustments Australians must make to ditch the car in favour of a bike outnumber the amount Singaporeans would have to make.

“In Australia you’ve got to commute from the suburbs into the CBD and back out again and those distances are large,” Markey-Towler said.

“You can’t do that on a city council bike and you can’t really do that on an oBike. You’ve got to have a proper road bike.”

Markey-Towler suggests that a big problem in Australia is the country’s helmet laws. A recent study found helmet laws, which don’t exist in Singapore, are a deterrent for certain people who would otherwise choose to ride a bike.

It has also been argued Australia’s lack of bike-friendly infrastructure further discourages potential commuter-cyclists.

So why do they get dumped everywhere? Markey-Towler says it comes back to geography.

“Singapore is such a dense city. There’s always going to be a place where there’s someone who wants to pick [an oBike] up,” he said. “That’s not necessarily the case in Australia where the oBike is something you might do [only] if you really need to.”

But Markey-Towler says the delinquent treatment of the bikes is a response to the ill-considered entry to the Australian market, and an expression of Australia’s disdain for anything impractical.

“It’s not so much that we’re idiots or anti-environmental. It’s that our lives are desperately practical and we’re trying the best we can to make sense of our lives and form a lifestyle that allows us to deal with an unbelievably complex world.”

There is, however, an “impish aspect of Australian culture” at play. Consider another product of wildly stupid collective behaviour: Ferry McFerryface, the official name for a Sydney Harbour ferry, as voted for online by the Australian public.

“What you’re seeing with Ferry McFerryface … is something that’s not quite practical and doesn’t really matter for us and we use as an opportunity to joke.”

This could explain our reaction to The Guardian Australia’s recent Australian Bird of the Year competition, in which readers have been invited to vote for their favourite native bird? Debate has been fierce, and a typically mischievous campaign on social media has pushed for the ibis (or “bin chicken“) to earn top spot. 

But it could also shed some light on the one time Australian cynicism seemed to allow it to keep it’s nice things — in this case, local cafe culture.

Despite Starbucks’ domination of cafe markets across the world, it hasn’t been able to efficiently crack Australia without suffering resounding losses. In 2013, the coffee chain closed 60 of its 80 stores, the remainder of which it sold to the Whithers group. Why? We love our local cafes enough that it overcame the “substitutability” that Starbucks offered.

Markey-Towler says the corporation underestimated the strong relationships local businesses are able to establish with customers.

“It’s really hard for a big establishment to come in and break that because you’re fighting against some of the most poignant and powerful psychological processes in human beings, which is community.”

Peter Fray

Get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for $12.

Without subscribers, Crikey can’t do what it does. Fortunately, our support base is growing.

Every day, Crikey aims to bring new and challenging insights into politics, business, national affairs, media and society. We lift up the rocks that other news media largely ignore. Without your support, more of those rocks – and the secrets beneath them — will remain lodged in the dirt.

Join today and get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12.

 

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW