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?