Oct 9, 2012

Why is Brisbane CityCycle an unmitigated flop?

A new study concludes there are multiple reasons why Brisbane CityCycle has flopped, including the difficulty of signing up, the need to wear a helmet, unsafe streets, and diabolical marketing.

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Brisbane CityCycle focus group themes (Source: Fishman et al, 2012)

There’s a new paper just been published that, as far as I’m aware, is the first academic research to look at either of Australia’s two bikeshare schemes, Brisbane CityCycle and Melbourne Bikeshare.

It’s not a formal evaluation but focuses on barriers and facilitators to the use of bikeshare. It’s a much more formal analysis than my personal account of CityCycle posted last week.

Why, the authors effectively ask, is Brisbane CityCycle such a flop?

The research was done by Elliot Fishman, Simon Washington and Narelle Haworth from QUT’s Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety – Queensland (CARRS-Q). The paper’s gated but if you click the Contact Author button they’ll e-mail you a copy.

The authors convened a series of focus groups to address the question of why CityCycle is failing. Some cautions are needed here – focus groups are good for identifying issues but not for measuring their relative importance.

Moreover, participants were selected non-randomly by advertising on the RACQ web site and the Bicycle Queensland website. They were rewarded with a $50 department store shopping voucher.

Two sessions were conducted with non cyclists; two sessions with bike-owning cyclists who’d ridden at least once in the last month; and one session with members of CityCycle. Each session comprised six people.

The issues identified by participants certainly gel with my personal experience of CityCycle.

Sign-up: The inability to sign-up spontaneously is a major deterrent. This initially took several days but was relaxed ten months later. It still requires prior subscription via website or phone.

‘‘. . .if I had to go through the same process (in London) as I had to through with CityCycle, I would never have rented the bike’’ (Male, late forties, CityCycle group)

Helmets: The requirement to wear a helmet reduces spontaneity. Some won’t cycle without a helmet (CityCycle only offers shared helmets) and some don’t want to wear a helmet at all.

‘‘I don’t find helmets are a problem generally but I wouldn’t carry mine around just in case I might want to use the CityCycle scheme. I think that would be a bit much.’’ (Male, mid twenties, non and infrequent rider group)

‘‘I don’t like wearing helmets. I just hate wearing a helmet. It messes up my hair’’. (Female, early thirties, non and infrequent rider group)

Docking station location: Participants said there were too few docking stations outside the central area. They need to be close to their place of work and home address in order to be an attractive option. Non riders said the city centre “is already well serviced by public transport but linking suburbs with CityCycle would be useful.”

‘‘It’s not good enough to put the docking stations on the periphery of Southbank, because all the food places are in the middle. If I am on a CityCycle, I want to go right there. I don’t want to have to walk’’. (Male, mid thirties, CityCycle group).

Legibility, promotion, marketing: There was a common perception CityCycle had been marketed poorly. The advertising campaign was poor, the website isn’t user-friendly, and kiosks at bike stations lack legibility (white type on a  light grey background – what were they thinking?).

‘‘It’s the whole thing, the idea is fantastic but the implementation of it and the rollout has been deplorable’’. (Male, twenties, CityCycle group)

‘‘I’ve used the App and it’s told me a docking station was there and it was working and there were four bikes and actually, the thing had not been commissioned yet’’. (Female, mid thirties, CityCycle group)

Opening hours: Participants were critical of the schemes restricted hours i.e. the 10pm to 5am shutdown.

‘‘It’s absolutely insane. You cannot borrow a bike until 5am and you cannot borrow a bike after 10pm. You can take a bike out at 9:59pm and ride it all night if you want but you cannot take out a bike after 10pm’’. (Female, mid thirties, CityCycle group)

Safety: This was a consistent concern across the focus groups. Participants feel bicycle infrastructure is inadequate and driver attitudes are unsympathetic.

‘‘It’s that damn dangerous, you are taking your life in your hands everyday’’. (Female, mid thirties, CityCycle group)

‘‘There are so many streets in the CBD that are bike no go zones’’. (Male, early fifties, CityCycle group)

‘‘Separate to the issue of infrastructure is the attitude of cars. At least twice a week – just the fact that I am on the road, I will come across a driver who is just rude. Wilfully coming too close or cutting me off. Or abusing me’’. (Male, late forties, CityCycle group)

Regrettably, there was a feeling among participants that interest in the scheme has waned. Now, hardly anybody uses CityCycle bikes “so you don’t want to be the first one.” There was common agreement, though, that the best promotion of CityCycle would be to “see other people using it.”

The authors propose a number of actions:

  • Introduce on-the-spot, automated sign up.
  • Open the system 24 hrs a day, 7 days per week.
  • Integrate membership with the smart card public transport system, Go Card.
  • Continue policies to increase immediate access to helmets.
  • Strategic marketing should focus on reducing barriers to sign up and incentivizing new membership and casual use.
  • Communication with current and potential users should focus on simple messages based around the mobility benefits afforded by public bikes.
  • Increase the catchment area of the system by providing docking stations beyond the downtown area and inner suburbs, and improve links with public transport nodes.

They’re all sensible recommendations and underline the probability that even if the helmet problem were somehow overcome, CityCycle wouldn’t necessarily automatically be a ‘success’. There are multiple factors holding it back that were never properly thought about before the scheme was set up.

Some of these recommendations are straightforward. Expanding the geographical coverage and/or density of bike stations however would be expensive (and note Brisbane CityCycle already has much better coverage than Melbourne Bikeshare).

The anti mandatory helmet law website, HelmetFreedom, is critical of the researchers for not recommending repeal of the helmet law. As I’ve said before, I think that’s unreasonable because the law has a much wider ambit than just CityCycle.

I think this quote cited by the authors, from Pucher, Garrard and Greaves, gets to the crux of the matter:

Probably the most visible commitment of a city to cycling is a comprehensive system of separated bicycle paths and lanes, providing a reserved right of way to cyclists and sending a clear signal that bicycles belong.

If cyclists feel safe, as they do in places like Copenhagen, uptake of bikeshare seems much more assured. Getting decent infrastructure in place first before setting up a bikeshare scheme seems to be the strategy Sydney is pursuing.

There’re some interesting questions posed by this study that I’d like to see examined further. In particular, to what extent is lack of access to a (clean and hygienic) helmet the issue, as distinct from not wanting to wear a helmet at all? Are many of those who say they refuse to wear a helmet actually likely to be regular users of CityCycle anyway?

(Visited 17 times, 1 visits today)


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

13 thoughts on “Why is Brisbane CityCycle an unmitigated flop?

  1. observa

    Alan, I’m arguing against MHL. Those that are deseperate for helmets would pay the extra required, unless of course in the cold light of day they too put convience ahead of safety as humans tend to do.

  2. Alan Davies

    observa #11:

    Very simple perhaps if you ignore the cost of providing and servicing (including collection and treatment of used helmets) a vending machine at each and every bikeshare station.

  3. observa

    Alan it’s very simple. Just put up a sign saying that if you use a sharebike helmets are optional, yet leave in place the infrastructure to buy one if you need it or are inclined. Done deal.

    The full-face argument isn’t a furphy at all. As you say, it’s a balance of risk vs benefits, and a MHL itself is exactly that tradeoff. For sharebikes, I think no MHL is best, for other cycling it should be mandatory.

  4. Alan Davies

    observa #9:

    It’s hard to see how the mandatory helmet law (MHL) constraint can be addressed successfully for bikeshare schemes. Perhaps Vancouver will come up with a workable solution?

    I don’t think exemption or repeal is a plausible option. I just came across this 2012 Essential Research survey which found 94% of respondents approve of the MHL. Only 1% “strongly disapprove”. That’s up there with the level of support for seatbelts in cars.

    Arguments like the full-face helmet one are a furphy (I’ve also heard people ask why then aren’t helmets mandatory for ladders, or water wings mandatory for swimming, etc etc). Every case is a trade off in terms of costs relative to benefits, and in terms of political acceptability.

    We could technically design an airliner where 90% of passengers would survive a crash, but the cost would be ludicrous. The benefit-cost ratio for mandatory car seatbelts on the other hand is much more compelling.

  5. observa

    I cycle to work just about every day. I willingly use a helmet because it’s safe and covinient, and I leave it locked to the bike at the train station.

    Once in the City I would use the bikeshare scheme if I could do so without a helmet.

    Firstly, I’m not lugging my helmet everywhere, and I’m not willing to rent something I already own. And by the time I’ve gone to get a helmet and sorted the bike I could have walked a good way of the distance to my destination in the CBD, so from a practial perspective the helmet scheme doesn’t work for me. In Australia, bikes are mostly about recreation in my view, not practical transport, but for me they’re a very good transport system first and recreation distant second. That practicality view means bikes need to be cost/time effective relative to alternative transport methods.

    Also, these sharebikes are slow, and ridden slowly. Big difference to tearing along country B roads. Yes, there’s a risk, but it’s less than other types of cycling, and the nanny state can’t eliminate all risks.

    Otherwise, why don’t we make leathers and full-face helmets mandatory? Just in case, y’know. Or introduce cycleways with foam padding either side of the lane. It’d reduce injuries, wouldn’t it?

  6. Alan Davies

    Dave #7:

    Don’t know if ‘slippery slope’ quite captures my POV. But in any event it’s entirely a political judgement.

    Don’t know the detail of pedicabs and I didn’t see any in Brisbane, but it’s probably analogous to taxis and seatbelts. The operators are able to differentiate themselves because they’re businesses (they probably mounted some sort of commercial argument to justify exemption). Plus it appears from the extract you quoted they have more than two wheels and that would also differentiate them from bicycles. Small mode share keeps them below the radar too perhaps.

    The vast majority of voters, whether right or wrong, take it for granted helmets are a good thing when cycling. It’s intuitively obvious to them. Parents of young children welcome it as reinforcing their desire to protect their children’s wellbeing.

    I expect any government weighing up the issue would think the vast majority of voters would see an exemption for bikeshare as wrong and foolish and as undermining the integrity of the wider law. I know there are arguments that bikeshare is different (e.g. slower) but short of making them tricycles, I doubt the public would see them as different enough. They might be big and bright, but they’re obviously bicycles.

    Having said that, it’s a political judgement. There might be a leader somewhere prepared to chance their arm on it, although who’s the constituency? Cycle Freedom only got 30 members to cycle helmet-free last Saturday in Melbourne, so I’m not sure the pro-choice numbers are as large as their high profile in some places suggests.

    Just what would comprise an effective strategy for achieving the pro-choice outcome for all adult cyclists is an interesting question in its own right.

  7. Dave

    Alan, I’m curious as to why you think you stance on a bikeshare helmet exemption is coherent. Here and in other posts, you’ve used a slippery slope argument – that a helmet exemption for bike share would be the ‘thin end of the wedge’.

    Yet we already have bike and location specific exemptions from helmet laws – most states have exemptions for pedicab passengers. Queensland for example has a type exemption – §256(2)

    “A passenger on a bicycle that is moving, or is stationary but not parked, must wear an approved bicycle helmet securely fitted and fastened on the passenger’s head, unless the passenger is a paying passenger on a three- or four-wheeled bicycle.”

    While the NT has location exemption for people over 17yo in parks and paths physically separated from roads.

    Why aren’t these exemptions also slippery-sloping-thin-bits-of-wedges? In supporting our currently exemption containing helmet laws (pedicabs/paths in NT) over another exemption containing helmet law (with bikeshare or CBD/paths exempt), then the only coherent justification is that some exemptions are acceptable while others are not. But for any reason one could think of, this isn’t the case.

    Visibility & identifiably isn’t the issue considering how glaring & bright citycycles are. Neither are risk profiles as the 15+ million of hires without serious head injures or death from London & Dublin have demonstrated. And finally, common sense also seems to be ruled out when the current laws deem lidless cycling safe enough for paying passengers but not for those where the exchange of money doesn’t occur.

    So why exactly do you think it ok to exempt paying pedicab passengers but not citycycle riders on bikepaths separated from cars?

  8. Alan Davies

    Richard Bean #4:

    Some great sources there. Unfortunately the Melbourne Bikeshare one only goes to page 68 (of 180). Do you have a link to the complete doc or if not would you mind sending me a copy if you have it (address in About This Blog in RHS pane)?

  9. Richard Bean

    I think I’ve summarised my view of the paper on the other thread (“citycycle designed to fail?”), but might just relate a different anecdote here from Ekka Day in August.

    Ekka Day is a public holiday in Brisbane and it should have been an ideal day for CityCycle as public transport (the train stop is right beside the Ekka, buses are not so close) were hideously packed. Despite this, I didn’t notice any uptick of CityCycle usage in my data.

    CityCycle wrote on their facebook page:

    “Forget parking, CityCycle has you covered! The nearest CityCycle stations are Station 56 (Constance St / St Pauls Tce) and Station 60 (Wickham St / Brookes St).”

    Coming from Toowong, I wrote:

    Ok, today with a friend I managed to ride to station 56 in the afternoon and from station 57 in the evening. This of course depended on us being able to find two helmets at each station we went to as we weren’t willing to lug helmets around the Ekka all day or get a locker just for them. At the end, there were 7 bikes at station 60 (in front of the Valley police station) but no helmets, so we got bikes & helmets from number 57 instead. There used to be a presentation on the Vancouver city website about their proposed scheme with a slide header “Well over 50% of trips are spontaneous therefore integrated helmet system imperative.” (that will be the third attempted bike share scheme in a city with a helmet law). Even tonight on the way back, the trip was spontaneous – we saw the crush for the train and said “no way” … mandatory helmet laws reduce your ridership considerably, and a lack of segregated bike lanes reduces it some more.

    Unfortunately, AD and the paper authors have represented the anti-helmet law advocates as monolithic – some are certainly advocating a trial exemption for CityCycle or for footpaths/cycle paths as in the NT – there are many good arguments for that – see Paul Martin at Enforcement issues become much easier if the trial exemption is just for CityCycle. I get the impression police don’t bother much in Darwin.

    And to respond to Alan Parker:

    The SKM feasibility study for Melbourne Bike Share (May 2008) at wrote “attracting 2-3% of the target market would result in about five rentals per bicycle per day, at which level a public bicycle system would be viable.”

    The AECOM study for Sydney (April 2010) at wrote “Under the Do Nothing
    Scenario, an initial utilisation rate of 5 trips per bicycle per day has been assumed. Market research undertaken by the City of Sydney suggests that demand for public bicycle would be enhanced by approximately 60 percent if separated cycleways were also provided in addition to public bicycle facilities (Taverners Research, 2007). Hence, under the Policy Target Scenario and AECOM Estimate, the initial utilisation rate was assumed to be 8
    trips per bicycle per day.”

    So, the consultants were also unaware of the effect the MHL and lack of infrastructure would have. I believe Chris Rissel is correct nominating these two reasons for the low uptake, though certainly more quantitative research is required to back it up.

    Some helmet law advocates here clutch at straws and look for any other reason – eg Tim Churches at partially blames the “tiny size” of the schemes. At 151 stations and approximately 1800 bikes Brisbane’s scheme is no longer tiny.

    There may be some doubt in Australia as to why the schemes are failing here but there’s no doubt overseas. Dublin: 30 km/h speed limit + no MHL = success by any measure; Brisbane: Adelaide St the designated “cycle path” through the CBD (and that’s just the designated part, go see the whole CBD for yourself – only part of George St has a segregated path) + MHL = a fraction of the usage of other schemes.

    And yes, AD, trips/bike/day is generally the success or performance indicator used worldwide – if people didn’t find the use “satisfactory” they wouldn’t use the scheme. Don’t believe me? You would rather have an Australian example? The SKM study above uses different wording – “viable” instead of “successful”, if you like.

  10. Dylan Nicholson

    I’d suggest MHL probably has a bigger indirect impact: because it discourages the “average user” from cycling, it has contributed towards marginalising cycling as a normal way of getting around, the way it is in most European and many Asian cities (admittedly, it’s also marginalised in most U.S. cities, despite lack of MHL, so I’m not claiming it’s the only reason). I’d suggest this marginalisation is a big part of the reason why we have such poor bicycling infrastructure, and why driver attitudes to cyclists are often actively hostile – especially because those of us who do choose to cycle despite MHL and lack of safe paths tend to be risk-takers who ride in a manner that is more likely to contribute towards negative attitudes towards cyclists.
    However I do think ultimately the best path to pursue is to continue to lobby for better infrastructure, plus programs to encourage people onto bicycles (e.g. far more government-supported ‘ride to work’ days – there should be at least 6 a year, rather than 1). Hopefully eventually Australia will realise what the rest of the world has already worked out – that MHL laws are counter-productive – but until then there’s plenty of other things we can do to promote cycling uptake.

  11. Last name First name

    Parker Alan• OAM
    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.
    The consultants for the last 30 years have ignored a balanced approach to enforcement Helmet exemptions are only one issue there have been a lot more over the years.

    Another is the political lobbying of the suppliers of a 70% reduction of light transmission thru car window when the EU and the national vehicle design standard require 30% light transmission. Indeed for the windscreen and right hand drivers window is in dangerous not to have retained the 30% transmission. Indeed several RACV staff wanted that until a former Vic Roads heavyweight silenced any discussion about it.

  12. St Etienne

    I guess the easiest way to answer the helmet question would be to introduce the same requirement for schemes such as London, Paris, Barcelona or Dublin.

Share this article with a friend

Just fill out the fields below and we'll send your friend a link to this article along with a message from you.

Your details

Your friend's details