Bus driver deliberately runs down cyclist

If they’re tempted, other Australian cities should think long and hard before committing to bikeshare. If private investors are prepared to take on the risk that’s fine, but it’s highly unlikely they’re interested. The fact is bikeshare will only happen if taxpayers stump up most of the funds.

Cities should ask themselves, first, if bikeshare warrants funding and, second, if there might in any case be better uses for the money. There are a number of issues they should consider.

The obvious number one concern is the mandatory helmet law. It’s universally cited as the reason why Brisbanites and Melburnians haven’t embraced bikeshare with anything like the enthusiasm of Parisians and Londoners. However there are possible solutions to the helmet issue.

Those who oppose the helmet law argue that users don’t want to wear a helmet, but I suspect they’re well and truly out-numbered by those who don’t use bikeshare simply because they can’t get access to a helmet easily. Providing cheap helmets at point-of-sale – for example for $2 via vending machines – might address most of that problem.

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But that’s not the only concern. Even if the helmet issue is resolved, it doesn’t necessarily follow that residents of cities like Perth, Adelaide, Sydney and Newcastle would enthusiastically embrace bikeshare. As I’ve argued before, there are other factors, particularly fear of cycling in traffic, that might retard use of share bikes.

Safety is a much harder issue to address in the short-term than helmets. Unfortunately, our cities don’t have the bicycle infrastructure or the positive cultural and legal disposition towards cycling of many European cities.

The scale of financing could also be an obstacle to any city contemplating bikeshare. Melbourne’s scheme was set up on the basis it would cost $5.5 million over four years, but I expect that must’ve at least doubled by now. One reason for its lacklustre performance could be it was done on the cheap.

There are just 600 bikes and 50 docking stations in Melbourne, compared to 20,000 bikes and 1450 stations in Paris’s conspicuously successful scheme. So the cost and risk for government in a city like Sydney could be considerable (the Paris system cost a whopping $140 million to set-up).

Apart from these practical constraints, other cities might also ponder what benefits bikeshare would deliver to justify the subsidy. This is not a question that bothered Melbourne or Brisbane, to their cost. Their key motivation was ‘greenwashing’.

They set up bikeshare to sell an image of sustainability, never mind the substance. Either they were ignored, or nobody did the sums that would’ve led to the obvious but inconvenient conclusion – “it won’t work until the helmet issue is resolved”. As it’s turned out, bikeshare has probably done damage to the image of cycling and sustainability in these two cities.

Even if Novocastrians were confident ridership would be much higher in their city than in Brisbane, hard and probing questions should still be asked about the benefits of bikeshare. The key pay-offs usually cited are greater mobility and increased sustainability.

The mobility benefits seem obvious. There are plenty of trips within the city centre and inner city of Australian cities that would be faster and more convenient by bike than by public transport. After all, bikes are a form of individual transport not dissimilar in some respects to cars. They’re available on demand (no waiting), go direct to the destination (no transfers), and, notwithstanding the term ‘bikeshare’, don’t have to be shared with strangers during trips (no stops).

Still, while it’s far from perfect, public transport in the centre of Australian cities is pretty good and is getting better. The centre is where all the radial train, bus and tram lines converge. Cities should ask themselves if public subsidies should go to a competitor mode, or whether they would be better spent on improving inner city public transport.

Cities should also ask if bikeshare would deliver a significantly greener outcome. Unfortunately there’s an absence of hard data on this question, but improvement in sustainability will only be marginal if, as I suspect, share bikes mainly substitute for walking and public transport trips, or induce trips that wouldn’t otherwise be made.

And cities should think long and hard about whether bikeshare would really substitute for taxi and car trips. Many people imagine they’d use bikeshare if they had the opportunity rather than take a taxi or drive, but this is exactly the sort of choice where people tend to over-estimate their likely use of a new option.

On some occasions they no doubt would cycle, perhaps in the first flush of enthusiasm, but there are many more occasions when there’re reasons not to. Perhaps it’s raining, or it’s too hot or too cold, or they’ve had a drink. Or it might be it’s an important meeting, or they’re wearing their best clobber, or they’re not feeling 100%, or it’s a bit too far, or they’re reluctant to cycle at night, or their companion isn’t interested in cycling, or….well, work’s probably paying for the taxi; and if not, well, it’s the inner city so the trip won’t cost a lot anyway.

On the positive side, the potential of bikeshare to aid tourism would be worth investigating. The implementations in Melbourne and Brisbane are aimed at locals, not tourists. The design of Melbourne’s tariff positively discourages longer hires – say to cycle the inner parts of the Yarra Trail – that might be attractive to tourists. Of course it’s worth remembering that the centre of Perth, interesting as it is, is not inner city Paris or London.

Cities contemplating subsidised bikeshare should understand that getting large numbers of riders doesn’t necessarily mean the scheme’s successful. There has to be a public benefit that exceeds the public cost. And it should be the best available (transport) use for the funds.