Finding the Phasing

Will future phases of my public bicycle hire scheme be built? That is the question, but let’s take a step back before we answer it.

Phasing is a funny word, particularly when it comes to its use in the lexicon of transport planners.

Sometimes it refers to stages in a continuous cycle, such as those programmed into traffic signals. Sometimes it is the timing of construction processes required to build one element of infrastructure, such as a bridge. Sometimes it describes the steps, such as design, appraisal and implementation, required to achieve a single, large project, say, a new interchange.

All these examples, though diverse, fit the dictionary definition of ‘phasing’:

The action of dividing a large task or process into phases.

The relationship between the timing of two or more events.

Yet there is another common use of the word phasing in my profession: to express the hope that a project or programme will be expanded, extended or otherwise continued beyond whatever might have originally been funded, procured and completed.

And it is this usage of phasing that commonly applies to the development of a city’s bicycle hire. Bicycle hire is a relatively new form of public transport, a 21st century development with only a few exceptions. Potential demand is incredibly difficult to predict, as it is a NEW service and its provision is as likely to generate new trips as to attract riders from other forms of public or private transport. This means that its installation is often approached with a measure of caution; cities and towns do not want to overstretch themselves in case nobody likes or uses the things and it is a total flop. Thus the tendency to plan for future ‘phases’ which have no allocated funding, designated programme or detailed plans to bring them to fruition, other than a vague intention if the ‘first’ phase is successful.

Success, of course, is an even more subjective term than this odd use of ‘phasing’. Is success based on popularity and ridership or income and revenue? Some cities choose to run ‘pilot’ schemes, which provide ample evidence for the opposite sentiment to ‘too big to fail’. But even where a reasonably large network of bicycle docking stations are implemented, with sufficient locking points and bicycles to encourage use, the business of bicycle hire remains a fragile model. See for some ideas why.

And so we come to my other 2014 baby (i.e. not my almost year-old son): the 29-station, 200-bicycle public hire scheme in Reading, UK. Having spent the best part of two years guiding it through the political and procurement processes and pushing lawyers, land-owners, civil engineering contractors and local media to all come together to launch a (nearly) complete ‘phase one’ on 10 June last year, I am thrilled that it has been well-received.

So is it time to do the groundwork for phase two? Considering the lead-in time for anything of a similar size or even half the size of phase one, you might say yes. But without a confirmed funding source in a time of cuts, you might say no. I say let’s stop using the term phasing in such an inaccurate way. The large task of launching ReadyBike happened a year ago. Anything that happens now is an expansion or an alteration or perhaps even a renewal.

Whilst a major expansion could happen if a funding source becomes available, it is more likely at the moment that, with modest encouragement, the network will shift and grow gradually, organically, in the way that other transport networks usually develop. Hindsight may be able to call different portions of the network ‘phases’, but by talking about phases now, expectations are raised and options may be too narrowly defined. Therefore, what I affectionately think of as ‘my’ public bicycle hire scheme can thrive and grow, even if the pre-conceived ‘phases’ are never built.

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