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

Urban cycling innovations: smart cities get on their bikes


Image by Poom via Creative Commons

A new OECD report has identified cycling as one of the visible signs of a successful city. Although many cities have yet to adapt their infrastructures to accommodate the growing demand for cycle routes, others are finding inventive ways to bring the bike back to town.

Copenhagen’s green wave
The Danish capital’s gold-plated credentials as a cycle-friendly metropolis are clear enough: 41% of its residents commute by bike, using over 1000km of bicycle lanes. With so many cyclists on the streets, Copenhagen has come to learn the value of keeping the traffic flowing. Which is why the city introduced “green waves”, electronic systems that coordinate traffic signals to recognise bikes instead of cars.  Cyclists travelling at a speed of 20km/h find that they hit green lights all the way into the city in the morning, and back again at the evening rush hour. But Copenhagen isn’t resting on its saddle. The city is currently testing Green Wave 2.0, which will detect bicycle users approaching an intersection. If there are five or more cyclists together, the light will stay green until they pass.

London’s cycle superhighways
When it comes to cycling, London is no Copenhagen. Car-clogged streets make cycling in the UK capital difficult and dangerous. Even so, the number of bicycle journeys in London has doubled since 2000, and a 2013 cycling census found bikes making up around a quarter of rush-hour traffic in central London. That figure seems likely to rise further with the advent of two ‘cycle superhighways’. In February, Transport for London approved mayor Boris Johnson’s proposal for the new bike routes, which will run east-west, linking Barking to Acton across central London, and north-south between King’s Cross and Elephant and Castle. Dubbed ‘Crossrail for the bike’, the routes are intended to offer riders more protection from other road users, with segregated cycle lanes, improved junctions and dedicated traffic signals.

Arlington’s equitable bike share scheme
The urban bike sharing concept had an unpromising start. When Amsterdam located 50 bikes for hire across the city in 1968, all of them were promptly stolen. But the idea was too good to die and today, from Dublin to Dubai, there are over 500 bike share schemes worldwide.  Almost all such schemes rely on credit or debit card payments, which excludes those citizens who want to hire a bike, but don’t have a credit card or bank account. Arlington County, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C., is trying something different to ensure more inclusive access to bike sharing. Residents who want to use its Capital Bikeshare programme will be able to pay cash for monthly memberships by visiting one of five ‘commuter stores’. To get started, applicants need only present proof of identification and residency and $16 in cash. When a customer’s account goes below $2, they’ll receive a reminder that they need to add more money to their account.

Mexico City’s cycle Sundays
“We love coming out and seeing our beautiful city from the seat of a bicycle, without the fear of death.”

When the mayor of Mexico City introduced the “Muevete en Bici” initiative in 2007, many dismissed it as a political stunt. But now, each Sunday, tens of thousands of residents get on their bikes and take possession of car-free streets, including the capital’s central eight-lane highway. Since being branded a gimmick the scheme has endured, as the city’s environmental secretary told the Washington Post:

“It has been a success. We shattered a myth that a megalopolis like Mexico City is not capable of considering the bike as a means of transport.”

The idea has also found favour elsewhere; during a visit to Jakarta, London’s mayor praised a similar scheme, and suggested it could work in London. But Boris Johnson doesn’t have to look as far as Indonesia or Mexico for a home-grown model: in Bristol, two roads in the city centre are closed to cars on one Sunday each month, as part of Mayor George Ferguson’s Make Sunday Special initiative.

These ideas offer just a flavour of how forward-thinking cities are adapting to the needs of cyclists as part of wider sustainable development strategies.  Other examples include Holland’s solar-powered bike lane, Tokyo’s subterranean bike parks and Manchester’s cycling community initiatives, among many more.

And it’s becoming clear that local authorities don’t have to develop their own urban cycling concepts from scratch, but can, like Bristol, borrow from other cities and adapt ideas to their own circumstances. As far as urban cycling is concerned, innovating is worth imitating.

The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on cycling and other transport topics, to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

 Further reading

Other resources which you may find interesting (some may only be available to Idox Information Service members):

TfL’s cycle superhighways rewrite the rules on roadspace allocation

International cycling infrastructure best practice study

Factors influencing bike share membership: an analysis of Melbourne and Brisbane

Cycling works: jobs and job creation in the cycling economy

Cycling plans, strategies and design guidelines