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 bike sharing: a tale of two cities

Bike sharing schemes are now a familiar feature of the urban landscape. From Montreal to Marrakesh, London to Lublin, more than 1000 cities around the world are learning that bike sharing can play a supporting role in reducing congestion, cutting air pollution, improving citizens’ health and boosting their reputations as great places to live, work and invest in.

But not all bike sharing schemes are progressing at an equal pace. While some, such as those in Paris and London are moving into the fast lane, others are struggling to stay upright. In today’s blog, we look at how two different cities – Seattle and Dublin – are tackling bumps in the road to better bike sharing.


In recent years, bike-sharing schemes have been springing up in cities all over the United States. Among the success stories is Washington, DC’s Capital Bikeshare programme, which is rapidly becoming an integral part of the city’s transportation system.

On the other side of the country, however, Seattle’s Pronto bike share scheme had a difficult birth. In its first year, people took 142,832 rides on Pronto bikes (the comparable figure for Capital Bikeshare was one million rides). A year after its 2014 launch, Pronto became insolvent, and Seattle’s city council bailed out the scheme at a cost of $1.4 million. Last year, the council announced that Pronto would cease operations in March 2017.

Pronto’s disappointing performance has perplexed cycling enthusiasts in the city. One Seattle bike blogger observed:

“Washington, D.C. is freezing in the winter and horribly hot in the summer, but they’ve blown past us, definitely on bike share and also on their rates of bike commuting.”

The factors behind the failure of Pronto have been the subject of considerable debate. Some have blamed it on compulsory helmet laws in the city, pointing out that similar rules in Melbourne also resulted in poor take-up of its bike share scheme. Others have put forward a range of theories, from poor cycling infrastructure and inadequate marketing to Seattle’s rainy climate and hilly topography. The city’s bicycle club also weighed in, arguing that the scheme’s small size, insufficient density of bike stations and prohibitive pricing structure put the brakes on what should have been a success story.

Bike sharing in Seattle may be down, but it’s not out. The city council is preparing to launch a successor to Pronto that will provide electric bikes and double the number of stations. There are still concerns that the mandatory cycle helmet rule may discourage take-up, although helmets will also be available for hire.

The council hopes the new scheme will be launched in summer 2017. It remains to be seen whether motorized cycles can kick start Seattle’s bike sharing journey.


In contrast to Seattle, Dublin’s experience of bike sharing started off with positive results. Within seven years of its 2008 launch, the Dublinbikes scheme had 55,000 long-term subscribers and had recorded over 10 million trips. An expansion in 2013 took bike sharing stations beyond the core of the city and delivered an extra 950 bikes.

The popularity of Dublinbikes has continued to grow, but would-be users have often been frustrated by the lack of available bikes and delays in further expansions. Funding difficulties lie at the heart of the problem.

Dublin City Council contracted the outdoor advertising company JCDecaux to operate the Dublinbikes scheme. In exchange, the company was given the right to advertising space at a number of locations around the city. Dublinbikes also secured sponsorship from Coca-Cola, and managed to stay in the black for its first six years. However, the scheme has been running a deficit since 2015.

The stark figures tell their own story:

  • the Dublin Bikes scheme costs €1.9m to run
  • subscriptions and usage charges generate €1.2m
  • sponsorship by Coca-Cola is €312,000

Under its contract with JCDecaux, Dublin City Council must fill the €388,000 shortfall, but the council is itself under financial pressure.  Expansion of the scheme would cost €1.2m, with a further €500,000 a year of running costs for the additional bike stations.

To fulfil its side of the Dublinbikes deal with JCDecaux, Dublin City Council proposed the placement of advertising screens in the southeast of the city. However, these plans were thrown into question in August 2016 when Ireland’s national heritage organization lodged objections. One heritage officer described the proposed screens as “nasty” “contemptible”, “tacky” and “grossly offensive”. City councillors subsequently voted against installation of the screens, leading to concerns that the costs would have to be shouldered by bike users.

In November 2016, the annual Dublinbikes fee rose by €5 to €25. That’s still lower than annual membership of London’s more extensive Santander bike share scheme (£90), but there are now concerns that the price increase will exclude people on low incomes or unemployed people, who may have found the bike share scheme more affordable than getting around by car or public transport.

Overcoming spokes in the wheel

Seattle and Dublin have experienced different problems in establishing their urban bike sharing schemes. But it’s worth remembering that Washington, DC’s early bike share scheme suffered very low use rates, while Montreal’s first attempt at bike sharing went bankrupt. Today, DC’s Capital Bikeshare is among the most admired in the world, and is contributing to cuts in congestion. Meanwhile, Bixi, which now operates Montreal’s bike share scheme, is exporting its expertise to other parts of North America.

Clearly, successful bike sharing schemes require careful planning, public participation, adequate funding and – perhaps most important of all – time to grow.