Ofo Is The Wrong Answer To The Right Question

Graphic by Elodie Arbogast

“Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race” is something that H.G. Wells probably didn’t say, though it has a nice message.

Here is something I will definitely say: “Every time I see a student on an Ofo bicycle, I despair for the future of Claremont.”

Yes, the bikes are pretty and the rides are free — for now. Yes, Ofo said its Claremont pilot is going great. But Ofo represents the increasing trust Claremont is putting in for-profit companies to solve problems we could fix ourselves. And for that, we should hesitate.

Ofo — and no, I’m not styling it as “ofo” unless “bell hooks” has been trademarked as a bike safety accessory — was launched in 2015 by five students at Peking University in Beijing with financial help from an alumnus.

Now, Ofo is the largest bike-share company in China and was valued during a Series D investment round in 2017 at $1 billion. Since expanding to the United States and other countries after earning its unicorn horn, Ofo has swept onto college campuses, from Vanderbilt to Texas A&M to San Diego State — and this semester, to Pomona College and perhaps to the rest of the 5Cs soon.

If you haven’t noticed, Ofo’s core feature is being “dockless,” meaning bikes can be left anywhere, not just on a rack. A self-locking mechanism and GPS tracker keep them safe. Take a quick walk around campus these days, and you’ll see the bright-yellow bikes leaning on kickstands outside academic buildings, near the entrances to dining halls, and dotting the Claremont Village.

It’s great that more people are riding bikes and that people find them convenient. By standardizing what otherwise might be a mess of systems, Ofo appears clean, safe, and reliable.

But to understand the bigger picture, and why I think we should be worried about it, we have to look at another service adopted by the 5Cs to fix a problem we couldn’t handle ourselves: Sakai.

Increasingly similar to Ofo with each passing day, Sakai is deployed across hundreds of colleges and universities in the United States.

However, at the end of the day, Claremont doesn’t need Sakai. Each class could just have an email listserv, Facebook group, or website — and plenty do. Some professors make Wordpress blogs instead of using Sakai’s system, and many students create Facebook groups to ask questions or coordinate study sessions.

Likewise, Ofo is not trying to replace other forms of transportation, or even personal bikes, at the 5Cs. It’s simply another option, and one that is executed well.

The way Sakai fixes the course materials problem is exactly opposite to how Ofo fixes the last-mile transit problem.

Sakai is open-source, free, and owned by the non-profit Apereo Foundation. Ofo’s bikes require speciality repair tools, cost almost $400 a pop on Ofo’s end, and are owned by a decidedly for-profit board (despite being barely profitable yet, if at all).

Finally, as Ofo tells it, it’s not just bringing bikes to campus; it’s supposedly making campus a better place. Ofo advertises its university program online as not “just sustainable campus transportation” but also something that “helps build a sense of community in students.”

On the one hand, that sounds like a holistic view of what transportation can do — a view that I tend to agree with. I’m an advocate of the bicycle, public transit, and car-free cities.

But on the other hand, it’s a red flag. If we’re trying to solve a problem, we shouldn’t need to literally be sold on the solution.

The future of Claremont, as a place, is bright. Over the past several years, the colleges have begun acquiescing to demands for more space for identity groups and students who need study space — admittedly, only after protests and well-crafted op-eds.

But, the way we move between those spaces matters, too. Not only have Pomona and Pitzer College tried their own bikeshare systems with minimal institutional support, and not only have demands for greater accessibility to buildings not been taken seriously, but a lack of careful consideration has grown bigger when it comes to the physical manifestations of Claremont’s culture.

Ofo is tempting. So, too, was Sakai. But take a step back, don’t get it twisted, and consider what it might mean to take the bait.