Problems with city bike returns – Service provider cannot avoid liability

Many city bike users experienced problems last year in Helsinki and Espoo when they were charged a delay fee of 80 euros due to a failure to return a bike. Many users also reported these problems to the Consumer Ombudsman and to the Consumer Advisory Services. The Consumer Ombudsman has examined the fairness of the terms of use and contract practices of the service from several perspectives and has demanded changes to them.

Problems arose when the bike-return system had not registered bike returns and, as a result, a late payment fee of EUR 80 was charged from the user’s payment card within a few days. Consumers typically reported that they had tried to get in touch with the city bike customer service by phone and e-mail, but that it was very difficult to reach them.

The service providers and the consumers’ contractual partners of the city bike service are the City of Helsinki Transport Enterprise (HKL) and the City of Espoo, whereas the service is performed and implemented in practice by subcontractor CityBike Finland Oy.

Responsibility cannot be transferred to a subcontractor

In their replies to the Consumer Ombudsman, HKL and the City of Espoo stated that instead of the service providers, the subcontractor CityBike Finland held main liability for errors and damages towards the consumers.

“This view is contrary to the general principles of contract law and the provisions of the Consumer Protection Act and is unfair to the consumer. When providing services to the consumer, the trader cannot delegate the liability they have under the Consumer Protection Act to the subcontractor,” states Consumer Ombudsman Katri Väänänen.

The technical system operator is responsible for functionality

Customer service of the city bike service had responded to notifications from consumers concerning problems related to bike-returns by invoking the terms of use of the service. Under the terms and conditions, the consumer was always responsible for ensuring that the bike had been successfully returned according to the information system of the service, even when it was not possible to return the bicycle, for example due to a fault in the system or a data interruption.

Pursuant to the general principles of contract and consumer law, the technical system operator is responsible for ensuring its operability. The system operator is also liable to the user for any deficiencies in the system and any errors resulting from them. In addition, the system operator must be able to prove that the system has worked correctly in suspected individual error situations. According to the Consumer Ombudsman, the terms and practices of the city bike service were contrary to these premises and therefore unfair.

If contact is required, it must be available

Under the terms and conditions of the city bike service, the consumer was required to contact customer service immediately if the return of a bike had been unsuccessful according to the information system. The problem was that, due to either congestion or the customer service opening hours, consumers were not able to reach customer service, and they were still charged a delay fee. An email notification was not enough to help them avoid a delay fee. According to the Consumer Ombudsman, the trader must provide a customer service system for the continuous processing of complaints if it requires immediate consumer contact in certain circumstances under the threat of sanctions. The Consumer Ombudsman found that a practice without such a functioning system was unfair.

Better conditions for the upcoming cycling season

The Consumer Ombudsman required corrections to the terms and practices of the city bike service. HKL and the City of Espoo have promised that in the future they will not act in ways considered unfair by the Consumer Ombudsman.