Bikeshare: Poster Child or Passing Fad

As January rumbles on, the new year forecasts and fortune telling continues apace. The state of the economy is a favourite for prognosticators, but elections (whether in November as in the US or not until May 2020 as in the UK), migration, climate, technology…. They’ve all made headlines.

In the transport sector, the headlines have mainly been won by the automobile of the future: driverless, electric, perhaps ownerless.

I’d like to put forward another candidate for transport form of the future: Cycle Hire (UK) or Bikeshare (US).

Bikeshare is the perfect fit for the 21st century. It is a publicly-available form of private transport, with smart infrastructure, operation and payment systems and real time, location-specific information. It is also a moving advertisement for the ability of cities to tackle modern challenges to public health, the environment, safety and access. Meanwhile, users get all the choice without any of the commitment, a perfect example of the sharing economy.

Over the last decade, bicycle hire has evolved from vacation bicycle rentals, organisation pool bikes and a few tentative trials into a full scale form of urban transport operational in hundreds of cities world-wide. It is not a stand-alone transport system, but complements existing public and private transport networks and is growing in popularity and importance and helping the bicycle grow its mode share.

But the future of bikeshare is not all plain sailing. Poor infrastructure, wavering political support and unrealistic business models could make recent progress appear a passing fad. Unless we make sure that doesn’t happen.

There is a desire for bikeshare among 21st century urban populations. The market for access to such goods and services on-demand is burgeoning in sectors from TV to travel. In transport terms, fewer people want to own, store and maintain their own bicycle (or car). However, they do want to choose their route, the length of rental, whether they want to take a bus or get a lift for the return journey.

These populations want ease of access and convenience, which means readily-available, geographic information, which is accurate in real time on their mobiles. Third generation bikeshare schemes have RFID chips and sometimes GPS trackers built into the bicycles. The docking stations are smart too. Most systems have their own apps. And as Moovit (http://www.geektime.com/2016/01/12/moovit-includes-global-bicycle-sharing-tracking-in-their-latest-update/) adds bikeshare data from around the world to their app, the complete transport package is becoming reality.

Unfortunately, that reality still fails to reach as wide a swathe of those urban populations as it should. Various bikeshare customer surveys indicate that the ridership is skewed towards young, male urban professionals. Are women, who have voiced their preference in other surveys for more segregation from traffic and more safety measures, discouraged by poor quality bicycle infrastructure? In 2011, the handbook Optimising Bike Sharing in European Cities was published. It listed the presence or absence of basic cycling infrastructure as its number one factor for the success and survival of bikeshare schemes.

Meanwhile, bikeshare is an emblem of civic pride in many places where mayors and municipal leaders want to showcase their efforts to reduce transport carbon emissions and air pollution and improve public health. However, because of the publicity bikeshare can attract, support for such schemes does not always survive a change in local leadership. In other cases, local governments are tentative and willing to fund only pilot schemes, which are much more likely to fail, as they do not provide sufficient coverage and convenience to attract significant ridership and fare income.

Which brings us to the third threat to bikeshare’s current success and future potential: unrealistic business models. I wrote about this before: https://go-how.com/2014/03/25/the-business-of-bike-hire/. Unfortunately, my observations of two years ago are still relevant. London may have a new sponsor and increased its ridership figures again and New York’s system has also seen improvements, but the obstacle of funding uncertainty remains for many schemes. I was excited to hear about the Bikeshare Transit Act (http://bikeportland.org/2016/01/07/rep-blumenauer-launches-bikeshare-transit-act-to-provide-funding-certainty) being introduced in the US Congress by a congressman who wants to see funding certainty provided to bikeshare systems in the same way it is provided to other public transport: through regular national subsidies. Could that happen in the UK too?

Whether by national legislation or neighbourhood action, my crystal ball shows that bikeshare is a perfect fit to be the 21st century poster child for urban transport. Now let’s make that fortune into the actual future.

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.

-www.oxforddictionaries.com

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 https://hdbudnitz.wordpress.com/2014/03/25/the-business-of-bike-hire/ 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.