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Is Brisbane CityCycle ‘designed’ to fail?

Mandatory helmets aren’t the only reason Brisbane’s CityCycle is barely used. It goes out of its way to deter users.

I was in Brisbane again over the weekend and took a particular interest in the state of Brisbane’s languishing bikeshare program, CityCycle.

This was a promising opportunity for CityCycle. It was a long weekend, the weather was mild, and the 2012 Brisbane Festival finished up on Saturday night.

In the afternoon the city was alive with thousands of TATs (Teens & Twenties) on their way to Parklife in the Botanical Gardens. There was a spectacular fireworks performance, Riverfire, on Saturday night.

I was in the city centre and Southbank on Friday night, Saturday and Sunday morning.  I spent a lot of time walking and looked closely at 15 bike stations during the course of my wanderings.

All but one of those stations had at least two bikes with bright yellow CityCycle helmets attached and available for hirers to use at no additional cost (see exhibit).

However in all that time I only saw two cyclists – a couple of thirty somethings – using the bikes. They were wearing the yellow helmets but cycling uncertainly on the footpath, even though at the time (10 am Sunday) there were relatively few cars around.

I don’t think there’s any doubt getting access to a helmet is a factor holding CityCycle back. Although helmets are available at many stations, some riders are bound to be deterred by the possibility of catching nits.

Another constraint is inexperienced cyclists are nervous about mixing it with traffic. But they’re not the only things holding CityCycle back, as I soon discovered.

I went to hire a bike on Saturday morning for the purposes of research, having decided I was prepared to chance any hygiene risks with the yellow helmets. I was staggered to discover, though, that I couldn’t hire a bike on the spot – I needed to be a registered subscriber!

I couldn’t just swipe my credit card at the kiosk to subscribe. Subscriptions must be done beforehand, either on-line, by telephone or at distribution points like libraries. In other words, there’s no possibility of spontaneous use by first-timers.

That’s got to be a cold shower for visitors and any locals who decide on the spur of the moment they want to give CityCycle a go. I doubt I was the first to give up.

Deterrents like the mandatory helmet law and limited bicycle infrastructure are unlikely to be addressed in the short term. But other bike schemes don’t have this sort of administrative hurdle. It shouldn’t have happened but it should be addressed straight away.

Like Melbourne Bikeshare, this strikes me as a scheme which was set up without, or despite, sensible evaluation and planning processes. It seems the objective was just to get a bikeshare scheme; but no one cared if it actually worked. Worse, it’s almost as if CityCycle was designed to fail.

That’s my personal experience. I’m keen to read a new research paper examining CityCycle that’s just been published – the abstract seems to be consistent with my conclusion. I’ll look at it in detail shortly.

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  • 1
    pjrob1957
    Posted October 2, 2012 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    I first came across bikeshare schemes in Stockholm. They too were not quite so spontanious to use, requiring the purchase of a 3 day pass from the tourist center. But they were fantastic to use and well patronised though the cities bike lanes and cyclist-protecting laws might have had something to do with it. Just the speed and convenience alone was enough to convince me of the value of such a scheme and I was glad Australian cities went for it. Interestingly, after using the Melbourne bikes quite a bit, I happened to find myself back in Stockholm on a visit buying a 3 day pass and was told by the girl at the desk that the credit card system in Melbourne was better than Stockholms. She asked how it was going and was surprised to hear that it was failing.
    Out on the street, I had a hard time finding a sharebike that day as all were out being ridden.
    Even though its an inconvenient system it was working.
    Stockholm has great bike lanes and also allows riding on what we would assume is a footpath. Only thing is you have to walk the bike in a crowded area. The laws there allow the bike the right-of-way and everywhere you find you are being given way to by drivers. The only helmet law is for kids and appears to be un-enforced.
    The awkward hiring system is still an obstacle and I would change it definitely but other things make a big difference also.
    Helmet law has to go.
    Riding on footpaths has to be allowed.
    Drivers need strong laws to be reminded that they need to be careful around bikes.

  • 2
    suburbanite
    Posted October 2, 2012 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    Alan, are you sure Melbourne’s bikeshare scheme wasn’t also designed to fail? Plenty of people would be pleased if it does. The one time I thought of using the scheme to ride to Brunswick st I found out there aren’t any stations there. The prices are set for short distance commutes but there are no stations north of the Melbourne Uni and none is Collingwood.

  • 3
    michael r james
    Posted October 2, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    AD, I think you know I have made all the same comments a long time ago. And people use the footpaths because they know how terrible Queensland drivers are.

    I believe the history of the scheme is not so much “set up to fail” but set up with complacency and zero attention to detail. On a whim by Campbell Newman probably after a quick trip to Paris (no doubt a shopping trip by the then Lady Mayoral consort) who saw that he could garner some cheap “green” kudos at low cost—ie. mostly funded by JCDecaux. He is not inclined to look at detail or least of all the history of how cycling became popular in Paris (quite feasibly he thought it was always popular–you know they have the Tour de France, n’cest pas?). Almost certainly he didn’t bother riding one, or pay attention to all the cycle paths and the special (bollarded) lane shared with buses.

    Incidentally the Velib scheme was not set up for easy tourist use either. Only recently was it made easy to use via a credit card. I think this is for two reasons. One is that such schemes are primarily for locals–and really if it doesn’t work for them it is not going to work for tourists. Second, if a bike is never returned to a station when you have taken it out (or it is seriously damaged) you (your bank account/credit card) are charged about € 150, but the bikes cost five to ten times that to replace. So that means without proper legal recourse (v. weak with tourists) it would be an invitation to steal the bikes or at least abuse them (take them for a week, take them in their hire cars for their trip around France etc). I’m not quite sure of what has changed–possibly they charge tourists’ credit cards the replacement cost? (Wiki doesn’t read as if that is the case.)

  • 4
    Alan Davies
    Posted October 2, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    suburbanite:

    I can’t say I know of anyone who wishes MBS would fail, but it seems obvious it wasn’t designed to succeed! Just compare the density of bike stations in Melbourne with Paris (make due allowance for differences in scale)! Density isn’t everything as Brisbane’s poor performance demonstrates, but Melbourne isn’t even on the chart.

    michael r james:

    Not just tourists, I think there’d be quite a few locals who wouldn’t appreciate CityCycle’s benefits until they’d used it, probably on the spur of the moment. The prior subscription requirement assumes there’s a sizeable market who know beforehand they’d want to use it. I’m not convinced that’s true.

  • 5
    IkaInk
    Posted October 2, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    When I was in Barcelona tourists had to subscribe beforehand. Thankfully my brother who lived in Barcelona already has a subscription and I was able to just borrow his card. In general, I don’t think many of the early systems were designed with tourists much in mind (Michael has already spoken of Paris). Only after their success did they decide it was worth trying to expand their use to tourists.

    Melbourne initially required a $300 deposit which would be withdrawn from your credit card, then returned at the end of the day after you had returned all bikes without stealing them for any day rentals. I think they dropped it because they wanted to appeal to students who in general don’t often have $300 spare in any accounts who would often use VISA debit or Master Card debit instead of actual credit cards.

  • 6
    Michael Fanning
    Posted October 2, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    Brisbane does have a bit of history around designing bike facilities to fail as that’s precisely what happened to the bike racks on the BCC buses. (They sold them to Action Buses in Canberra where they are being used quite successfully now.)

    However the City Cycle scheme seems more to be set up with no particular ambition to make it succeed. It gets paid for mostly by Adshell sponsorship and the bikes and stations look lovely on BCC websites and brochures.

    I work at Southbank and decided to buy an annual subscription when I saw that a bike station was being installed virtually right outside the main entrance to our building. Mostly I just wanted to do short journeys nearby. The helmet thing isn’t an issue as the danger of getting booked is negligible.

    During the Writer’s Festival it was convenient to grab a bike and pop between venues. Unfortunately for most of those journeys the rack at my destination was completely full, forcing me to turn back and then do the same journey on foot. That has been my experience for almost half of the journeys I’ve wanted to make since I subscribed.

    If you want to jump on a bike after a movie or a show in the evening you’re out of luck as the service shuts down at 10 pm. It’s common to see visitors to Southbank trying to hire a bike at the station outside our building. They can’t of course as it’s necessary to pre-register.

  • 7
    Luke Turner
    Posted October 2, 2012 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    Yes the CityCycle casual daily subscription is difficult and no doubt putting people off (but for the record, it is possible to subscribe on the spot if you have a smart phone – I have done it once before with a friend from out of town).

    However, the Melbourne Bike Share has an easy subsciption method – just swipe your card and go. Yet Melbourne still has the same appalling usage as Brisbane (only about 0.3-0.4 trips per bike per day).

    Further, casual daily use is not the predominant type of use in most bike share schemes. For example, in London since the scheme started in Dec 2010, 70% of hires have been by members and 30% by casual users.*

    So yes, while your point stands, it doesn’t explain why CityCycle is getting 0.3 trips/bike/day when it should be getting 10 or 20 times that amount.

    Of course there is one factor which can explain it. Helmet laws. People in Brisbane can either bring their own helmet or wear a communal helmet possibly worn by thousands of other people and which sits out in the sun and rain all day, and never cleaned.

    Neither of these options is practical or appealing. I would no more wear a helmet that was sitting on the street than I would wear on old hat that I found lying beside the side of the road, nor am I going to carry my own around with me all day.

    * source: http://www.tfl.gov.uk/roadusers/cycling/20389.aspx

  • 8
    Nik Dow
    Posted October 2, 2012 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for interesting article. You know the rule, if it’s a choice between a conspiracy and a stuff-up then it’s usually the latter. So it probably wasn’t designed to fail, but nobody cared very much about the outcome.

    That is consistent with the general level of committment to making bikes a mainstream part of transport – close to zero.

    One of the very interesting things about the Fishman et al paper that you mention is that they cite a survey of Melbourne Bike Share users (or non-users, more commonly) with a majority citing helmets as the deterrent. Despite this they don’t mention helmets in their recommendations – the person paying the piper is calling the tune I suspect.

    In Melbourne the Minister for roads is considering what to do about the bikeshare, as it approaches the end of the contract period. Freestyle Cyclists is calling on members (& everybody) to write to the Minister asking him to give an exemption from helmets as a trial. Then we can stop speculating about the reasons for the low usage, and get some good data on the safety of cycling with or without a helmet.

  • 9
    IkaInk
    Posted October 2, 2012 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

    @Luke – I do wonder how structurally sound the helmets provided with the Brisbane system would be after getting soaked by the rain then baked in the hot sun, two types of weather Brisbane has plenty of. My guess is that the majority of these helmets would cease offering much in the way of protection after a few months of weather exposure, which if true goes to show the silliness of the entire concept of forcing people to wear them is.

  • 10
    Alan Davies
    Posted October 2, 2012 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

    Nik Dow #8:

    I agree – always the stuff up. My reference to “designed to fail” was meant ironically.

    IkaInk #9:

    That’s an interesting deduction – from a “guess” direct to the “silliness of the entire concept”!

  • 11
    micky Bee
    Posted October 3, 2012 at 12:05 am | Permalink

    Cycle hire in london has been a sucess. However you could not just turn up and hire a bike to begin with, you had to register whilst the system bedded in. Now you can hire a bike with a credit card. And you don’t need a helmet. And of the hundreds of thousands of trips made only a couple of injuries to cycle hire users, a no helmet needed. It can work but you need enough docking stations, a system to relocate bikes, a good payment setup and no bizarre helmet law.

  • 12
    Richard Bean
    Posted October 3, 2012 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    I have to defend the scheme in one sense – if you have a smartphone and a credit card (Visa or Mastercard) you can sign up on the spot and start using it.

    As for the Fishman paper – I have read it. Two out of the three authors are from CARRS-Q so they are not going to recommend even a partial exemption for CityCycle or for footpaths/cyclepaths (the NT way).

    Section 3.1 of the paper is about the sign-up process. “Citycycle members revealed that a crucial element was ‘spontaneity’ – the ability to use the bike on impulse, without the need to register details manually, either over the phone or online”. I don’t know how the go card integration work is going – when I’ve accidentally swiped my go card over the reader instead of the CityCycle card it tells me “your express card needs to be validated” so there is probably not much work to do. For go cards to work, realistically, they would need to be associated with a credit card as the fee is $330 for not returning the bike. Unfortunately, Queensland Labor, no longer in power, has no vision on the scheme and politicians such as Milton Dick and Annastacia Palaszczuk have looked for ways to make the scheme fail instead of making constructive suggestions. See http://chickensaltforthesoul.wordpress.com/2012/09/10/dicking-the-cycle/ for more context on that.

    Section 3.2 is about helmets. After reading a professor of public health, Chris Del Mar, say it was “highly unlikely someone would catch nits” from a shared helmet, I’m not discouraged by this, but many people are. “Short of rescinding mandatory helmet legislation, participants were unable to suggest innovative methods of reducing
    this barrier to CityCycle use.” Apparently the participants couldn’t think of the partial exemptions suggested above. They misspelled “publicly” as “publically” which is pretty sloppy for an academic article. Also, I found it curious that none of them mentioned the classic problem with the helmets – perhaps no one in their CityCycle focus group was a “dual-use” commuter, i.e. for home-to-work and fun. The classic problem is if you have a helmet you’re looking for a bike without one to keep the basket free for your hat/bag, and if you don’t have one you’re looking for a bike with one, and you can’t always find one. Then at the end of the trip you might forget to reattach it properly – you’re not waiting two minutes to do it properly, you’re probably just going to throw it in the basket at the end and go, especially if you’ve had to hunt for a station with free spaces. I’ve written more about redistribution and app/computer problems at the Brisbane Cyclist forum.

    The first figure in the paper, “What stops you from using Melbourne Bike Share”, shows that the top two reasons are “hard to find a helmet” and “don’t want to wear a helmet” so the lack of a suggestion for even a partial exemption reveals the author’s ideological bent. Recommendation number one is “introduce on the spot automated sign up” (presumably without the need for a smartphone – though the demographic most likely to use it is likely to have a smartphone), two is 24/7 opening, three is go card integration, four is “continue policies to increase immediate access to helmets” etc. I don’t think they could or should do much more in terms of rearranging helmets: because of the “classic problem” issue above, they don’t WANT helmets on every bike.

    I agree with the first three, but after that my recommendation would be to follow Dublin – 30 km/h speed limits on roads in the CityCycle zone and dump helmet laws, or some kind of partial exemption, as that is probably more politically achievable.

    I would say the helmet laws are not _solely_ responsible for the low usage rate – cycling on the Brisbane CBD’s designated bike “path”, Adelaide St, with a 40 km/h speed limit and buses going past, is an unpleasant experience compared to the Riverside and Botanic Gardens bikeways. However, it’s no longer possible to “separate out” the MHL effect on the usage rate as the helmet laws implicitly shift the responsibility for safety onto cyclists instead of car drivers, which discouraged and continues to discourage the development of safer routes. Just the other day, a Victoria Police spokesman was saying cyclists should wear hi-viz and map out safe routes before they ride. The emphasis didn’t seem to be on car drivers as such.

  • 13
    Robert Slape
    Posted October 4, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    Both seem to have their issues. I used Melbourne’s whilst I was there although due to the small range and sometimes large distances between stops you had to make it convenient. Using the system alone does not allow much movement outside of the immediate city centre without high charges.

    Brisbane’s was frustrating with having to be a subscriber – also it seems odd that it does not function 24/7. Surrounding infrastructure is also lacking and inhibits casual uptake – in both cities.

    Given the large investment needed for these respective systems, and in Melbourne’s case with no advertising revenue, it suggests these bike share schemes are not designed to fail. Yet they need to be seriously reconfigured in order to succeed.

  • 14
    Caleb Edwards
    Posted October 5, 2012 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    City Cycle is also prohibitively expensive with timed hire charges of up to $165 for one day’s use on top of the $60 annual subscription.

  • 15
    Last name First name
    Posted October 5, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    Parker Alan• OAM
    The thing about nearly all the overseas scheme is that hire bikes are for all bike users Is that they easier to start using with common smart cars, have no helmet requirements and are growing fast. especially in the US and throughout Europe. The problem in melbourne and Brisbane is that the consultants who advised government must have known the constraints, especially the helmet issue and failed to suggest the only sensible option which is to allow the easily identified hire bikes to be exempt from the helmet wearing law.
    The police commissioner has the power the power to do this and does so with many other many illegal things that are too dam dificult to enforce, or waste too much police time on doing the paper work.

  • 16
    Tim Churches
    Posted October 6, 2012 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    Here is an interesting alternative to the existing bike share models – one which substitutes a small box of electronic smarts on each bike for the high-cost and restrictive dedicated docking station approach. It will be very interesting to see how well it works in the deployments planned for three cities in the US next year.

    http://www.theregister.co.uk/2012/10/05/bicycle_hire/

  • 17
    IkaInk
    Posted October 13, 2012 at 1:39 am | Permalink

    @Tm Churches – Berlin has had a similar system since about 2003. Berlin ‘Call a Bike’. Where you register your phone with the system, then call the phone number listed on the bike to unlock it.

    However they now also have a more standard version, so I’m guessing it has not been overwhelmingly successful.

  • 18
    steve whocares
    Posted November 1, 2012 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

    i agree with pjrob1957, in a few cases
    Helmet law has to go.
    Riding on footpaths has to be allowed.
    but a slight change to your last point, strong laws are not the answer, common sense is the answer.
    the only time there is trouble on the roads with bikes is when bike users are being arrogant. if bike users realize that they will be squashed if hit by a vehicle rather than doing what they want things will work. lets face it who wants to run someone over, no-one.common sense says rats give way to cats, cats give way to dogs, and dogs give way to lions – simple (no egos involved)

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