Bumps in the road for bike-sharing schemes

Image: Paul Wong, Chief Data Officer, PanelHype, Victoria, Australia

Last year, we reported on the rapid rise of bike-share schemes around the world. Since then, bike-sharing has continued to grow in its existing strongholds, while new schemes have been launched in places as varied as Lisbon and Detroit. But the nature of bike-sharing has also undergone dramatic changes, with some welcoming the new developments, and others branding them a public nuisance.

The most significant change has been the rise of dockless bike-sharing schemes. Over the past four years, two companies – Ofo and Mobike – have transformed bike-sharing in China, enabling people to rent a bike simply and quickly with the aid of a smartphone app. There are no pick-up or drop-off bike stations; cyclists simply find a bike using a GPS locator, pay and go. When they’ve reached their destination, cyclists can leave the bikes wherever they please.

Ofo, Mobike and a growing number of rivals have revolutionised transportation in China. Half the population of Beijing – 11 million people – have registered for the schemes; across the country, more than 100 million bike-share apps have been downloaded. The success of app-driven bike-sharing schemes in China means they are now cropping up elsewhere in Asia, as well as in Australia, Europe and North America.

The pros and cons of dockless bike-sharing

Bike-sharing is an affordable and environmentally-friendly way of getting around, especially in congested city centres. And, as The Washington Post has observed, dockless bike-sharing schemes ‘solve what planners call the “first-mile-last-mile problem,” helping people get from their homes to a bus stop, for example, or from a subway station to their final destination.’

But the new schemes have also generated problems. In Shanghai, where there are now over forty bike-sharing companies, bikes have been abandoned in large numbers outside subway stations and office buildings, clogging up pavements and creating what locals have called “a new generation of trash”.

Elsewhere – from Melbourne to Manchester, Sydney to San Francisco – the sudden appearance of hundreds of bikes on the streets (sometimes without the permission of the local authority) has been met with mixed reactions.

For cyclists looking for a truly door-to-door service, the new schemes offer convenience and flexibility. However, instances of theft and vandalism have highlighted the negative impacts of dockless schemes.

Within a month of Mobike launching its bike-share scheme in Manchester, images of damaged bikes started to appear on social media, and at least two bikes were dumped in a canal. Similar incidents have been reported elsewhere in the UK, as well as in Australia, the United States and Spain.

Getting bike-sharing right

Cities have been on a steep learning curve in coming to terms with dockless bikes, and there have been some very different responses.

Shanghai, Beijing and Amsterdam have taken a hard line by banning new dockless bike-share services. In London, Wandsworth Council impounded more than a hundred bikes, claiming that they were causing obstructions and blocking parking spaces, although cyclists using the scheme argued the move was excessive.

Other cities have introduced new regulations on dockless bike-sharing. In September, Transport for London published a dockless bike-share code of practice outlining requirements for operators.

In Australia, three Melbourne local authorities have signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with dockless bike share operator oBike. The terms of the MOU require oBike to ensure their bikes do not obstruct access and to relocate any dangerously parked bikes.

The dockless bike-share companies themselves have been learning the lessons of early teething problems.

The Platform for European Bicycle Sharing and Systems, which brings together bike mobility companies across Europe, has prepared a policy framework which aims to guide cities through the process of implementing a new bike sharing system.

Other companies have turned to technology. Urbosolutions and oBike are among those bike-share services now providing local authorities with a “geo-fencing” option. This enables councils to designate zones where bikes may not be parked. Bike-share users entering a geo-fenced area are unable to lock their bikes until they move outside the zone. Cyclists who fail to comply will incur penalties.

The changing face of bike-sharing

The explosive growth of dockless bike-share services has undoubtedly benefitted city dwellers looking for flexible, affordable, sustainable and healthy transportation options. But as bike wars heat up among operators, and between bike share companies and local authorities, cities need to develop new regulatory frameworks for the smooth management of bike-share schemes. At the same time, the operators need to rethink how their businesses work.

As for the future, bike-sharing will continue to evolve, with forecast developments including payment for bike rentals using cryptocurrencies, the launch of dockless electric bikes and continued expansion into new territories.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also be interested in these Knowledge Exchange blog posts:

Urban bike sharing: a tale of two cities

Urban cycling innovations: smart cities get on their bikes

Night mayors: building bridges between businesses and communities

We’ve previously written about the importance of the night-time economy as a driver of tourism, leisure and business growth in towns and cities. And we’ve also blogged about the challenges facing night-time industries, notably the number of nightclubs forced to close due to economic factors and security concerns.

A growing number of city authorities are responding to these developments, and exploring new ways of meeting the distinctive economic development, public safety and quality of life demands presented by cities after dark.

The pros and cons of the after-hours economy

The UK night-time economy is substantial. One estimate has put its value at £66bn, employing 1.3m people. In London, an already thriving after-hours economy is set to grow by a further £77m a year following this year’s launch of the 24-hour Tube on the Victoria, Central and Piccadilly lines.

But a city’s nightlife is about more than commerce. Noise, violence and other forms of anti-social behaviour can upset nearby residents, and put people off living in or visiting a city.

Some authorities have taken a hard line towards areas with a reputation for trouble at night. The New South Wales government has introduced laws to crack down on drug and alcohol-fuelled violence in parts of Sydney. But, while the new rules – including 1.30am lockouts and 3am last drinks at nightclubs – have reduced street crime, their impact on Sydney’s night-time economy has been devastating. More than 100 venues have closed, and the once booming entertainment district of King’s Cross is now being described as a ghost town.

Night mayors: bridging the divide

There’s a balance to be struck between protecting communities from anti-social behaviour and enabling a dynamic night-time economy to flourish. One idea for bridging these competing interests is the appointment of an individual dedicated to the needs of the city after dark.

Shortly after the Night Tube started operations, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced plans to appoint a “Night Czar”. The role of this new figure will be to engage with night-time businesses, residents and public authorities, and to create a “vision for London as a 24-hour city”. And on 4 November it was confirmed that the new Night Czar would be the writer, broadcaster, DJ, performer and campaigner Amy Lamé.

London is following a trend set by other cities that have recognised the need for a distinct approach to their after-hours economies. In 2014, Marik Milan was elected Amsterdam’s first night mayor. Previously a nightclub promoter, Milan leads a non-profit foundation funded jointly by the city council and the business community.

One of his early successes has been helping to establish 24-hour licences for selected nightclubs on the outskirts of Amsterdam. It’s hoped that the relaxation of licensing laws will help to relieve the pressure on the city centre, while regenerating pockets of the city lacking both daytime and night-time offerings. And, given that most problems happen when clubs are opening or closing, the 24-hour approach may also lower the chances of disturbances.

Marik Milan also wants to bring some of the positive lessons from music festivals into the centre of Amsterdam. He’s suggested that the presence of stewards, trained in how to de-escalate situations and report incidents, could make for a safer city, especially at weekends.

Milan believes his approach, in contrast to that adopted in Sydney, is more likely to bring positive results:

“Cities are always interested in solutions, but if they keep treating night life as a problem, they’ll keep having the same outcome.”

An idea whose time has come?

The successful deployment of night mayors in Amsterdam and other Dutch cities has prompted municipalities around the world to consider, and in some cases, to copy their example. In France, night mayors have been elected in Paris, Toulouse and Nantes, and they are also to be seen in Zurich and most recently in the Colombian city of Cali. Similar posts have been proposed for cities such as Berlin, Dublin, Toronto and New York.

Earlier this year, Amsterdam hosted the first Night Mayors Summit, at which city representatives could combine knowledge and share experiences on their night-time economies. This short film, from Monocle magazine, reports on the summit, and explains how the cities of Amsterdam, Berlin, Tokyo and Sao Paulo are exploring creative approaches to managing the night-time economy.

It remains to be seen whether London’s new night czar can win the support of local communities while championing the capital’s night time culture. But the experience of Amsterdam suggests that it’s an idea worth exploring.

If you’ve enjoyed his blog post, you might also like our other posts on the night-time economy