Jun 3, 2013

Why does bikeshare work in New York but not in Australia?

New York's Citi Bike scheme is less than a week old and it's already an overnight success. Would the Melbourne and Brisbane bikeshare schemes be as successful if helmets weren't mandatory?

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Docking stations in New York's Citi Bike scheme (in the dead of night - at 3.20am Sunday)

New York’s commercially-financed new bikeshare scheme, Citi Bike, isn’t even a week old but already it’s obvious, notwithstanding some criticism, that it’s taken the big apple by storm (video here).

After just five days, it’s recorded an average 8,105 trips per day and enrolled 25,276 annual members (fn 1). It looks set to join other conspicuously successful bikeshare schemes like those in Paris, Barcelona, London, Dublin, Montreal, Washington DC and Minneapolis.

Each Vélib’ in Paris is used four to six times per day. Hire rates per bike in Barcelona run at seven times a day in summer and in Washington DC each bike is used five times a day in peak season.

The apparent overnight success of Citi Bike highlights the disastrous experience with bikeshare in Australia.  Melbourne Bike Share had just 253 hires in its first week of operation in May 2010. After six months, even with the introduction of a subsidy for helmets, usage rose to 183 hires per day and memberships reached 650. It’s now up to around one daily hire per bike i.e. on average each bike gets used for about 20 minutes a day.

The performance of Brisbane’s CitiCyle scheme, which also opened in 2010, is even worse. Despite having three times as many bikes and stations as Melbourne Bike Share, average usage languishes at around 0.4 daily hires per bike.

Why do schemes in other countries appear to perform so much better than Melbourne’s or Brisbane’s? That’s hard to answer definitively because getting reliable and comparable usage data is very hard. Nor have any researchers undertaken yet the sort of sophisticated multiple regression analysis that would be required to explore the question properly.

The seemingly obvious answer is that Australia has the only bikeshare schemes that mandate and enforce helmets. If prospective riders have to find a clean helmet even before they can hire a bike that’s got to be a serious dampener on demand.

While the helmet law is undoubtedly an important factor in the poor performance of bikeshare in Australia, it’s unlikely it’s the only reason. In fact it might not even be the most important one.

As of 2011, there were over 300 bikeshare schemes throughout the world. Other than Melbourne and Brisbane, none mandate use of a helmet. Yet there is considerable variation between them in terms of usage. For example, although the Dublin scheme has fewer bicycles than the Goteborg scheme, usage is ten times higher. Something other than helmets must account for the difference.

This reflects the pattern for cycling in general too. As noted here, cycling rates differ significantly between countries that don’t have Australia’s strict helmet laws. For example, bicycle use in the Netherlands is nine times higher than it is in France and Italy and more than twice as high as it is in Germany. Those differences have nothing to do with helmet laws.

Nor does helmet policy explain why bicycles capture 34% of trips in Munster, but only 13% in Munich. Or why the corresponding figure for Groningen is 37% compared to 10% in Heerlen; or 20% in Bruges but 5% in Brussels; or 19% in Salzburg but 3% in Wien.

Repeal of the helmet law would undoubtedly lead to increased demand for bikeshare in Australian cities, but usage might still be lacklustre relative to other schemes. It might still be insufficient to generate benefits that exceed the publicly-funded costs.

That’s because there are other factors at play. They include differences in:

  • density of bikes and stations;
  • density of population, employment, education and activities;
  • pricing, access, operating hours and marketing;
  • cycling-specific infrastructure and regulation of vehicles;
  • car ownership level
  • the demography of the population;
  • historical cycling culture;
  • level of public transport supply;
  • climate and topography.

Consider that on launch and with no public financial subsidy, New York’s Citi Bike has 6,000 bikes and 330 stations in Manhattan (south of Central Park) and parts of Brooklyn. In the next iteration that will increase to 10,000 bikes and 600 stations.

Melbourne Bikeshare launched with a mere 100 bikes and now has 600 in 50 stations. CitiCyle has 2,000 bikes in 150 stations. Here’s a map of the Melbourne and Brisbane schemes at the same scale as New York‘s (see exhibit).

The demography of New York’s residents favours bikeshare – Manhattan and Brooklyn are populated by the cognitive elite. Experience with Washington DC’s Capital Bikeshare scheme suggests they’re the primary market for bikeshare (indeed, some observers claim bikeshare in the US is “another kind of luxury item”).

While NYC is still far behind the leading European cities, Mayor Bloomberg also put a lot of effort into improving cycling infrastructure ahead of the launch of Citi Bike. Meanwhile, Melbourne struggles to provide even a short section of bicycle lane on Princes Bridge.

I suspect one of the most important differences is density. Manhattan and Brooklyn are much denser in terms of population, employment and other key destinations than inner city Melbourne and Brisbane, or Washington DC for that matter. In terms of density, Manhattan is comparable with Paris.

Just as importantly, that density extends across a very large area. Whereas most major inner city attractions are in or close to the very compact CBDs of Australian cities, there are many key destinations spread across the territory covered by Citi Bike.

That also impacts on the relative attractiveness of cycling and public transport. New York enjoys a well-deserved reputation for the quality of its public transport system, but travel within Manhattan often involves transfers. That provides a niche for the option of faster direct travel by Citi Bike (and, of course, by taxi).

At $95 p.a. ($60 p.a. concession), a Citi Bike subscription provides a very inexpensive option for those whose frequent travel range lies within the area covered by bike stations. There’s no maintenance cost, no need to carry the bike upstairs, and no need to store it securely in a tiny apartment with no balcony.

Popular expectations of bikeshare schemes in Australia are shaped in large measure by the example of outstandingly successful schemes such as those in Paris and Barcelona. But they’re not typical of all 375 schemes around the world. Importantly, the two Australian schemes lack some of the key attributes that contribute to success elsewhere.

Melbourne Bike Share and Brisbane CitiCycle would undoubtedly perform better if helmets weren’t mandatory, but I don’t think an exemption would necessarily, or even probably, be a silver bullet. Further actions would also be required before either could be considered a “success” by the standards of schemes like, for example, Dublinbikes.

Dublin is often cited as an example of what Melbourne could do if it weren’t for the helmet law (DublinBikes started with a similar number of bikes and stations). However it also has a 30 kmh speed limit in the central city and bans on heavy vehicles. Irrespective of the issue of mandatory helmets, that’s one example of the sort of change the Melbourne and Brisbane schemes require to take patronage to a level that justifies their growing public subsidies.


Update: After ten days operation, Citi Bike is averaging 10,650 trips per day (16,395 on day 10) and memberships have increased to 32,033.

Every docking station in some of the world's 375 bikeshare schemes mapped at the same scale
Every docking station in 23 of the world's 375 bikeshare schemes mapped at the same scale
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39 thoughts on “Why does bikeshare work in New York but not in Australia?

  1. Tom Schmidt

    “Would the Melbourne and Brisbane bikeshare schemes be as successful if helmets weren’t mandatory?”

    Well, I know one trip that was prevented by them. I am from New York, where obtaining a citi bike is simple and usage has been tremendous. Of course, given that it will be below 20DegF next week, we don’t do so well in the winter.

    In November 2011, I made the loooong flight to Melbourne from New York via LA. My niece, with us, wanted to take a bike ride around the city, using your bikeshare. We found plenty of bikes, but absolutely nowhere to rent a helmet, a “requirement.” My attitude? Screw the law, get the ticket, and LAUGH my ass off when you guys sent a cop to NYC to enforce it; sadly, the younger generation seems to think the law is made by God, not venal, interfering goo-goos who only occasionally stumble on something that is actually Law, and so my niece ardently would not ride in violation of your “law.” And missed her chance to see your fair city (and it is a VERY fair city) in the manner she desired; she will not soon forget this.

    How exactly did you guys conquer a continent without helmets, anyway?

  2. Eric Brenner

    I’m a Washington, DC resident, avid biker but not a bike-share member, and have just returned from a short visit to Brisbane where I noted the debate on eliminating the bike helmet requirement. An effort to add a bike helmet requirement to segment of the DC system that is in the state of Maryland was just defeated in the legislature this Spring.

    While ending the helmet requirement in Brisbane would help, there seem to be some other differences that favor DC:

    1. driving in Brisbane CBD felt less safe than DC, while in DC almost all streets feel bike friendly because of both the grid system, and overall slower driving speeds. If you find yourself not on a street in DC with a marked bike lane, it’s no big deal. If you drift onto an unmarked street in Brisbane, I bet this is uncomfortable for the average (non hardcore) biker.

    2. despite an earlier comment, Brisbane is definitely hillier than DC, particularly in the neighborhoods where commuters to the CBD are likely to live, which also serves to limit street options that can be used.

    3. Brisbane CBD has more high-rise buildings than DC, which has a strict height limit on all buildings. This has resulted in a wider range of neighborhoods serving as residential and business locations…all good news for bike-share in DC.

    4. Brisbane transit actually seemed better (more user friendly) than DC, even with the excellent DC metro, so less incentive to find alternatives fro Brisbane residents. DC metro stations in CBD all are obvious and heavily used locations for bike-share, but DC metro is expensive and increasingly unreliable and user unfriendly. Bike-share has become both a cheaper and more reliable alternative for many to mass transit.

    5. DC probably has a higher number of tourists than Brisbane, which has also been a contributor to bike-share use.

    6. I’m sure that DC has a much higher property crime rate than Brisbane, making some people more reluctant to use their own bikes if they have to be locked on the street (I never lock my bike on the street for more than a 5 minute errand; most DC bike commuters secure their bikes in the building where they work), which is an added incentive for DC residents to use the bike-share system…not that Brisbane bike-share advocates should hope for more crime to help their ridership numbers.

    7. I’m still stunned/surprised at how well the DC bike-share system has done, which means that a few tweaks in Brisbane could have equally unexpected (positive) results.

  3. Crikey Melbourne

    I think that the primary problem is lack of cycling infrastructure. I lived in Germany for seven years and cycled daily without a helmet. I also cycle toured in Holland and France. Motorists were courteous. This happens because a high percentage of people are cyclists. To get there we need cycling infrastructure. If we have a permanently marked bike lane on every street that has a speed limit higher than 30 km/h then cycling will boom. Then, after some cultural change, we can eliminate the mandatory helmet law.

  4. FelineCyclist

    My experience is similar to Krammer56 and Face meet palm, palm meet face.

    Bike Share in Melbourne just doesn’t go where anyone wants to go by bike. The CBD is not a nice place to cycle generally, especially for someone who doesn’t do it regularly. The docking stations don’t go further south than Albert Park Lake or further north than Melbourne Uni. These areas are well connected by PT, so why would you bother with a bike?

    The times I would like to use Bike Share is after 7pm, when trams run only every 20 minutes. Despite living only a 22 min cycle away from the CBD, I can’t use the Bike Share to get home because the closest docking station is itself a 15 minute ride from my house!

    As for the helmet law, I agree that it’s not the only issue. It’s clearly an issue that many people feel very deeply about – not surprising as adults generally don’t take well to being told to do something when the only person being affected is themselves. But it’s an issue that, politically, is not going to change in the foreseeable future. So what do we do? Give up on BikeShare until they one day repeal the law? Or should we try to fix what can be fixed, eg getting a broader and denser spread of bikes, especially along “good” cycling routes and more cycling routes within the city (the problems of east west and north south connections described above are spot on).

  5. Tom the first and best


    Why no helmets for hire?

    Head lice etc.

    There would have to be a way of washing them.

    There would also have to be a way of taking helmets that have been damaged out of circulation (or else there would be a serious liability issue).

  6. Christopher Nagle

    It seems to me that having a system of helmet hire with the bikes would be a useful adjunct to the bike hire infrastructure and maintenance of a very sensible rider protection requirement.

    But that likely won’t make very much difference to the use of the system.

    I suspect that that if there were larger bicycle traffic volumes overall, there would be a greater incentive for the use of a public hire system. That won’t happen until the road infrastructure becomes much more developed and safer to use for bikes. And that probably won’t happen until someone has the courage to make the users pay in the same way as car users do. Good quality bike infrastructure doesn’t come cheap.

    And that is most unlikely to happen because bike riders have a very long and successful freebie association with car traffic, which they regard as a sacred birthright.

    Why paying for new bike infrastructure should be the sole responsibility of those who add a motor to get them along is not so much an irrational mystery as a habit of mind. It is at least as unreasonable as the exasperation of car drivers with bike riders who ‘get in their way’, because they have nowhere else to go.

  7. Steve

    I’ve seen the bikes in both Melbourne and Brisbane, and walked past them for want of a helmet. Sure, my sample size is very small, but seems to match up with the 36% of people that didn’t want to wear a helmet, and perhaps another group that were happy to do so, but didn’t have a helmet at the time. I’ve noticed that there are now “$5 helmets nearby” but for travelers, carrying a helmet after the event (or throwing away a $5 helmet) doesn’t make sense. Helmets are definitely a factor here.

  8. Jai Cooper

    RobJ: “anyone who rides a bike without a helmet is mad”.

    A symptom of the culture of fear.

  9. Face meet palm, palm meet face

    Tom @29

    Yes – and they’re good – but it’s on the edge of the CBD and for my needs, too far north to be convenient (e.g. if I was going from Southbank to Collins/Exhibition St, it makes no sense to cycle up William St (peak hour bike lanes only, and steep), hook turn onto La Trobe (not fun), and then hook turn onto Exhibition (peak hour lanes only) – when I could just walk up to Collins/William and hop on a tram).

    Despite there being 9 north-south routes and 5 east-west roads, only 3 of each have any form of cycle lane provision. Hardly a network. The ‘little’ streets are good – but obviously only one way.

    To make it ‘handy’ for short trips (i.e. such that trips are far quicker than by other modes to outweigh the entry barriers of helmets/credit cards) – in the same way that London/Paris bikeshares are – then there needs to be a more permeable network of bikelanes. Perhaps having contraflow bike lanes on the ‘little’ streets could be an option?

  10. IkaInk

    @Tom – They’re pretty complete. I’ve been using them a bit lately (on my own bike, yet to have a reason to use MBS!). Sure feels nice!

  11. Tom the first and best


    Latrobe St is getting Copenhagen style bike lanes.

  12. Face meet palm, palm meet face

    My experience is similar to Krammer56.

    Having moved jobs to an office on Southbank with a row of Melbourne Bikeshare bikes outside, I took out an annual subscription last year. For this, you get issued a key which allows you to access any bike without a credit card.

    I own my own bike, and usually ride to work. However my bike sits in a multi-storey car park which is a pain to get out of, so I thought that Bikeshare could be quite useful for the odd trip into the city at lunchtime or to meetings at the Spring St end of town.

    However, I probably used the bikes less than 20 times over the whole year. I don’t think I’ve used it once since Christmas.

    It’s not so much the helmet issue for me, as I’d usually have one with me. It’s more that Melbourne CBD is actually not that nice a place to cycle around. Whilst cycling infrastructure towards the CBD is generally very good, cycling within the city is actually pretty tortuous.

    There are very few east-west routes that are attractive:

    – Flinders and Lonsdale Streets are horrible to cycle on with no cycle lanes and a lot of vehicular traffic.
    – Bourke St is blocked in the middle either side of Swanston
    – Collins Street has the very narrow cycle lanes around the platform stops plus the steepest hill in the CBD between Swanston and Russell Streets. The bikeshare bikes are very heavy, going up that hill isn’t fun.

    North-south routes aren’t all that much better other than Swanston St and the tokenistic peak hour cycle lanes on William and now Exhibition Street.

    Despite giving it a good go, I found it a lot more easy to either walk or catch the tram/bus within the CBD for short trips. So I’ve let my subscription lapse and not renewed it.

    So as has been discussed earlier:
    – There are a lot of barriers for casual users (helmets plus the need to swipe a credit card (I think the pre-auth amount is $300).
    – There are easier and more attractive ways of getting around Melbourne CBD.

  13. rubbo mike

    Alan, thanks for supplying some info about your european riding experience. I take you point about “costly’ not being your personal opinion. Yet you are on the side of retention, are you not? I haven’t seen any real cost benefit analysis from you . All the pros weighed fairly against all the cons.

    Can I also go back to you stalking horse analogy? It came across as very loaded, very negative, since it implies that we who are linking choice to bike share, are somehow creeping up for the kill because that’s what you do with a stalking horse. I would rather say that we are being opportunistic.

    We like riding without helmets. We don’t like being fined. We know how hard it will be to change such a law. We see how a very positively regarded initiative, bike share, might open up the debate, bring in new stake holders, give us a chance to situate Australia comparatively, and so we grab the opportunity.

    I think this is a good and fair strategy, given what we’re up against, real entrenchment.

  14. Krammer56

    I’m a rider and a helmet wearer (luckily, since I smashed my helmet on the road last year – with my head inside). I also work in the CBD.
    Despite getting a free trial about 12 months ago and having a spare helmet lying around at work I have still not used the MBS.
    I agree with the reddit comment – you can readily travel to most places in and around the CBD by PT, so why bother even trying to work out how to use the system (now that I’ve got MYKI under control).

  15. Alan Davies

    rubbo mike #24:

    Your response is an example of how advocacy leads to seeing what you want to see. I didn’t dub a helmet exemption costly, I said that “those who think MHL is positive naturally see an exemption as a very costly change”. I’m not expressing a personal POV here, I’m making the observation that the value of an exemption depends on your POV. And there are different POVs.

    I’m not “campaigning” in favour of MHL either. I’m campaigning for better evidence and more responsible debate where both pros and cons are acknowledged and where other POVs are recognised. It’s my experience though that most of the deception and spin comes from the anti-MHL side (which probably reflects the challenges of overturning the orthodoxy).

    My Euro riding experience is indeed limited but I would have no problem personally in riding bikeshare helmet-free in Paris, Barcelona or Dublin (would use a helmet in London though).

    Am I imposing MHL on you because I don’t campaign actively against it in these pages? I don’t think so.

  16. rubbo mike

    I think we are getting to the nub of the matter when Richard Bean calls an exemption for Bike share a “free” change to try, and Alan dubs it costly.

    May I ask, Alan, have you ridden extensively or at all in countries with helmet choice? If so, did you wear a helmet? If you rode helmet free, I find it hard to believe that you did not find it pleasant even delightful to do so.

    I went overseas an agnostic on the question and after one day tooling around Amsterdam, not on bike paths but in traffic, I was a convert. I found riding with the wind in my hair so pleasant, that I want now to always have the choice to do so.

    I also realized on that trip that I resent riding with a helmet because of the image I project. Being protective clothing, the helmet’s advertises to the world that I’m doing something especially dangerous when I don’t believe
    I am.

    I believe the opposite actually, that I’m doing my health and general well being a huge favor, being on two wheels rather than in a car or on a bus.

    So, for me, this law forces me into false advertizing and thus I find it actually “costly” to wear a helmet in terms of personal satisfaction and my self image.

    Don’t you take some care with what you wear Alan, choosing clothes which reflect your personality, world view, social class, etc?

    We’ll I’m happy for you to choose a bike helmet not only for protection, but as your statement of the perceived dangers associated with cycling, but why impose your taste, your campaign, on me?

    Now, if of course the stats on accidents involving public bike users were alarming, then perhaps the state should step in to override choice.

    But, as you know that’s not the case. In one of my films on the matter, made 3 or 4 years, I quote the figures for the newly begun Bixi scheme in Montreal. 3.5 million Kms. ridden in the first season and five accidents, mostly minor. An amazing result and consistent with findings elsewhere.

    Am I wrong to conclude, Alan ,that an element of the “cost” you talk about is that your world view is somehow offended by seeing people riding without a helmet?

    Finally, I really would like to know about your European riding experience? If it’s non existent or limited, and If you won’t back us for a trial exemption for bike share, how about we back you for a helmet free cycling holiday in Europe? I’ll chip in for the ticket

  17. Alan Davies

    Richard Bean #22:

    I expect Australia and NZ have more anti MHL researchers and advocates too. That’s all to be expected since we’re some of the few countries with MHL for adults.

    I saw that explanation of the methodology and found it far too vague. I wouldn’t “reject” it because its an undergraduate study but I’d most certainly treat it with a lot of caution. Pedagogical objectives can over-rule knowledge at this level. It’s not snobbishness, it’s called having standards of evidence.

  18. Richard Bean

    Those academics who see MHL as a net positive seem largely restricted to Australia and NZ. That in itself could be the subject for a study.

    The sample selection was explained on page 23. “Web-based survey distribution used a combination of random, opportunity and self-selected sampling through controlled online distribution methods.” So not all self-selecting. From the context you’ll see he was well aware of sampling issues. It was an honours thesis, I’ve never seen anything else like it yet, and to reject it because it wasn’t a Masters/PhD thesis and his conclusions don’t agree with yours just sounds like snobbery to me. We might have to wait some time to get something peer reviewed, while we could be improving our schemes _now_.

  19. Alan Davies

    Richard Bean #20:

    I’d just say it’s a “free” change

    There’s the rub. Those who have a view that MHL is negative naturally see an exemption as a “free” change. However those who think MHL is positive naturally see an exemption as a very costly change.

    From what I can make out the Forrest survey sample was self-selecting. FFS, it’s an undergraduate thesis!

  20. Richard Bean

    The survivorship bias issue is dealt with well in Forrest’s thesis too. His cohort 1 and 2
    are rare and regular cyclists, and in Table 9 the reasons are given in the same order. It’s pretty conclusive. Only in table 10 for cohort 1 does the subscription and borrowing process make it up to second place (barriers for “the public”) after helmet laws.

    How would you suggest measuring if the difference is “worthwhile”? I’d just say it’s a “free” change and to look at the experience of the other 533 cities.

  21. Alan Davies

    Richard Bean #18:

    I agree that the helmet law is a major problem for bikeshare in Australia (actually, I thought I made that pretty clear in the article). But it’s patently not the only constraint. That’s very important because an exemption from the law might not make a worthwhile difference when there’re multiple constraints.

    The helmet law is however the most visible constraint and so it’s not surprising respondents to surveys tend to cite it first. That will be particularly the case if you only ask existing users (‘survivorship bias’). What matters most is why the 99.9999% aren’t using bikeshare – they might give equal weight to other constraints like safety and access to stations.

  22. Richard Bean

    The Earth Policy Institute, using data from the Bicycle Sharing Blog, estimated there were actually 535 bike sharing schemes in 49 countries in April 2013. Since then Dubai has opened one. There are still only two with helmet laws – Brisbane and Melbourne; Dubai doesn’t seem to be enforcing theirs for their scheme, the approach Alan Parker suggested above.

    Alan D writes of “sophisticated multiple regression”. There is a danger that this will turn into “kitchen sink regression”, though, where variables with spurious significance seem to be important. Another great difficulty with multiple regression is that it’s impossible to objectively measure infrastructure quality or driver attitudes across cities. However, I’ve found that in Brisbane the M/F ratio on a segment in Strava correlates well with infrastructure quality within the city.

    This danger is why it’s important to take into account surveys of actual bike share users, to see what the most important variables could be, like the Alta survey mentioned by Nik. One of the best surveys I’ve seen, which I’ve mentioned here before, was by Joshua Forrest looking at perceived barriers to bike share scheme adoption. Table 9 (Cohort 3) found that the greatest barrier was “helmet laws prevent spontaneous use of public bikes” (88% of respondents), the second was “helmets are not always available (49%), and the third was “current quality of road and bikeway infrastructure discourages public bikeshare adoption.” (48%). It’s presumptuous, then, to say the helmet law “might not even be the most important [reason]”. That flies in the face of the evidence.

    The barriers discovered by Forrest are in fact the two barriers mentioned by John Nightingale in a talk to the Brisbane Institute in November 2010, where he correctly predicted Melbourne’s scheme would do better. This was before the Brisbane floods of 2011.

    The sense in which I agree with Alan is that it’s now impossible to “de-link” our helmet laws from our poor infrastructure. Australia took the wrong fork in the road some time ago; whereas other countries chose to improve cyclist safety by improved infrastructure, Australia chose helmet laws. The history of the laws was explained by Peter McCallum in a post in 2004. “When the compulsory helmet laws were enacted Bicycle (Institute of)
    Queensland opposed them, but only until some preconditions were met. These included proper funding for bicycle facilities on roads. Our main problem was that we felt that government would be able to say, “we’ve made helmets compulsory” the bicycle safety problem is solved. It also enabled authorities to attribute blame for accidents (regardless of the kind of injury) to cyclists who didn’t wear helmets.”
    At the time, bike sharing schemes could not have been envisaged and it’s become clear an exemption should be made for these bikes. The exemption would not cost anything and makes sense because bike share is safer than riding your own bike.

    On twitter Greg Barber, Victorian MP, recently wrote “Why other cities Bike Share works and Melbourne’s doesnt (hint: its nothing to do with helmet rules)”. It’s hard to believe anybody could be a regular user of the scheme and come to that conclusion, so I encouraged him to try it out. Cyclists often complain about bike infrastructure not actually being used by the designers, who thus fail to understand the realities of the road. Something similar seems to be happening with the schemes as there are no politicians around with the courage to champion the obvious reforms necessary. This is frustrating – I often ask myself if our politicians ever travel …

    I wonder if Alan has attempted to use MBS regularly? I’ve been using CityCycle on average several times a week since December 2011. Its problems are clear to me, and even clearer when I attempt to use it for reasons other than commuting, or when I’m with more than one person (have to find more than one attached helmet then). Despite promoting trips per bike per day as a measure of success, I prefer to write of its “immense unrealised potential” rather than its “failure”.

    The purpose of comparing Brisbane to Washington DC, as Nik has noted, is that these are the 17th and 16th biggest schemes in the world (excluding Chinese schemes). I can’t separate out effects for helmet law / infrastructure / driver attitudes / credit card hire at station, but I can control for density, price, topography, number of bikes, and opening hours.

    Comment number 14 of Alan’s citing reddit mentioned hills in Brisbane – that’s generally a clear sign the commenter doesn’t know what they’re on about; Washington DC’s scheme and many other schemes are “steeper”. CityCycle and MBS should publish trip and survey data, following the example of Washington DC and Boston’s Hubway Data Challenge. This would enable more comparisons between schemes.

    The R-squared of the relationship between the log of the number of stations and the trips per bike per day is only 0.21 for the data, so there’s lots of other variables to consider. This relationship was suggested by a PhD thesis of Alberto Carlo Fernandez. But it may not be the correct one – more research is needed.

    Another variable which I’ve commented on at my wiki is the TomTom Congestion Index. For Brisbane: 25%, 45% in morning peak, 50% in evening peak versus Melbourne: 28%, 56% in morning peak, 54% in evening peak. New York is 22/36/50, Moscow is 66/106/138, Paris is 33/70/65, London is 27/56/55. According to twitter, Moscow’s recently launched scheme is already very popular.

    If surveys and statistical analysis haven’t caused you to think helmets are the most important factor, certainly listen to what non-Australians believe about our bike schemes. This helps improve objectivity. Alan may have doubts but the main reason is clear to these writers.

    Watch the Mike Rubbo interview with Andrew Montague of Dublin. “Melbourne, Australia is often seen as an example of a city with an existing bike share system that has all the right stuff–a nice climate, flat topography, urban density–except for Australia’s mandatory helmet law.”

    The Guardian: “The only sure outcome of a mandatory bike helmet law is to reverse a promising trend of growing bike use.”

    Grist: “No bikeshare has ever been successful where there is a strict helmet law like Seattle’s, which requires cyclists to helmet up regardless of age. … Melbourne, Australia, notably tried the bikeshare/helmet law combo and all that resulted was mild interest and several bad cases of helmet hair.”

    Chicago Magazine: “Now that American cities are rolling out bike-share programs, cities are loath to enforce helmet use because it kills the programs.”

    NYT: “A two-year-old bike-sharing program in Melbourne, Australia — where helmet use in mandatory — has only about 150 rides a day, despite the fact that Melbourne is flat, with broad roads and a temperate climate.”

    NYT: “The city said that helmet requirements were found to depress ridership in other cities.”

    The other example of a planned scheme in an MHL city apart from Vancouver is Seattle. I’m not sure that either of these schemes is going to get up – they seem to have been extensively delayed.

    Finally, Alan has used Goteborg as an example of between city differences. Figure 38 of the OBIS Handbook shows how the usage rate varies by season. Goteborg, according to Weatherbase, has a more extreme climate than the cities in their example. Brussels is a clear example of poor infrastructure and no helmet laws leading to low scheme usage, as discussed in my Brisbane Cyclist post.

    For the Brisbane scheme, the obvious improvement that everyone should be able to agree on is removing the 10pm-5am closing. The local government must be very timid or conservative to have persisted with this restriction for 2.5 years – which doesn’t augur well for the other changes they’ll have to make. The contract, however, does run for 20 years.

    Fishman, Ahillen and even BQ (wonder of wonders) are against the night time closing. Age restrictions (17+ due to “public liability issues”) should be modified as well. Then the obvious barriers created by helmet laws, not having credit card access at the stations, speed limits, infrastructure, and redistribution issues should also be fixed. Others suggest a go-card debit link, but no other scheme works without identification, so this would be impractical.

  23. IkaInk

    I am not at all surprised by Citibike’s success. They put a lot of research and planning into their scheme before rolling it out, something Melbourne certainly did not do.

    You are right Alan that MHL isn’t the only limiting factor for MBS or Citybike. Both of these systems have considerable flaws. Melbourne stuffed up right from the rollout phase by starting way too small (in the middle of winter) and too slowly rolling out still too few bikes, across an area already very well serviced by PT. My bet is if the entire scheme was setup along and between Sydney Road, Brunswick and High Street Northcote it would have more success, at least then the bikes would serve the cross suburban journey’s that our radial PT system fails so miserably at. Unfortunately I think even if Melbourne repealed MHL and addressed half the issues that do hold the system back take-up would be very slow. All the major success stories started with a bang, Melbournian’s and Brisbanites have already made up their minds about their bike share systems and it would take a while to adjust their opinions.

    All of this said. Whilst I believe MHL are not the sole cause of either Melbourne or Brisbane’s absolutely dismal failure with bike share; I don’t think bike share success and MHL can co-exist. Of course we’ve only got two cities to test the hypothesis so far, and they both fail for numerous reasons, so perhaps I’m wrong. Soon though a third city will be joining Melbourne and Brisbane’s ranks. Vancouver is introducing a bike share scheme and British Columbia also has an plans to enforce MHL. If it falls in a heap I think it would make for pretty damning evidence against MHL and bike share. Both Montreal and Toronto have fairly successful schemes.

  24. robj

    You’d be mad not to wear a helmet cycling. The consequences of even a minor head injury are too serious.

  25. Jai Cooper

    That there are many other barriers is a good reason to remove one.

  26. Alan Davies

    Nik Dow #13:

    My pleasure Nik. It’s not the only one either, but I’d say “supports” my case not “proves” it. A number of comments there about hills, traffic, driver attitudes, poor cycling infrastructure, all of which might help explain Brisbane’s poor showing (not to forget MHL of course).

    Both Brisbane and Melbourne are subject to MHL. Brisbane has three times as many bikes as Melbourne, but only around half the usage rate. How would you explain that? Doesn’t it suggest there’s more to it than MHL?

  27. Nik Dow

    Thanks Alan #12, for that anecdote. Proves your case I guess. By the way, how many other Cities with bikeshare have trams?
    I can think of one which doesn’t – Brisbane.

  28. Alan Davies

    An interesting comment from the discussion of the article on Reddit (a lot of other worthwhile comments too):

    [–]tigersmadeofpaper 9 points 4 hours ago

    Melburnian living in NYC here. Why didn’t I use bikeshare in Melbourne when I would/will here? In a word: trams.

    Or to put it another way: There are gaps in the public transport here that bikeshare addresses. The subway just doesn’t go everywhere and changing lines can be a pain. As you can maybe see from this map, going cross-town can be difficult and time consuming. The bikes are just another form of public transport that will make getting from A to B simpler without having to switch trains or walk really long distances. I just can’t see gaps in Melbourne’s transport network that bikes would address. Trams pretty much always had me covered, and the times didn’t, a clunky bike would not have been the solution either.

    The other reason is theft. I’m pretty fine locking my bike up with a standard D-lock in a public area in Melbourne and not worrying about it being nicked. Here, you need super heavy duty locks and to lock both tires and make sure nothing can be levered off and even then, you worry (or I and a lot of people I know worry). I’ll happily ride my bike into Melbourne’s CBD but I rarely ride it into Manhattan.

    From what I’ve observed in other US and Canadian cities, it’s the same: bikeshare is popular because it helps people commute faster or more easily.

    Sure, I can see the helmets being an issue for some, but I have seen plenty of people riding Citibikes with their own helmets, and if I knew I was going to be using a bike as part of my transport that day, I’d just take a helmet with me.

  29. Burke John

    Allan @#7 “There’s a regrettable tendency for some advocates to treat bikeshare as a stalking horse for their efforts to repeal the mandatory helmet law” ‘s opponents rights to uphold their view in the interests keeping their excellent blogs even-handed and balanced. Balanced though like in the climate change ‘debate’ in this particular instance.

    A person with a balanced view is by no means a helmet nazi but has no objection to wearing one themselves and probably does most of the time. Quite likely a balanced view requires a reason such as extreme liberal views or care for hair or lack of convenience to explain why others would not
    wear one. In fact there may be no conscious reason at all not to wear a helmet. In my case though, I just don’t like them and wouldn’t be caught dead in one.

    Australia has a high rate of utility cycling and bike share. Australia is about the only country in the world with enforced mandatory helmet laws. One of these statements is exclusively true. That is the viewpoint I have come to, but only since becoming a fanatical fan of the Urbanist, the best forum in Australia for the discussion of these issues and the dissemination of ideas which can effect our future.

  30. Nik Dow

    Persia #9 you need to travel more. Paris introduced its scheme when relatively few people were riding bikes in Paris, and there were no bikelanes. The bikeshare doubled the number of trips overnight, and within a couple of years, the number of trips on private bikes also doubled. The Mayor was then able to announce a very big programme of building bike lanes, with a support base many times larger than he would have had without the bikeshare. And London, lots of safe places to ride?

    That is one of the reasons why the failure of the bikeshare is such a pity in relation to the impetus it could be giving to the campaign to get more “spaces to ride”.

  31. Persia

    Hi Alan

    I think the Melbourne Bikeshare was introduced way too early in the evolution of the central city into a bike-friendly space. There needs to be a better network in place before a lot of non-riders will dip their toes in the water and give the share bikes a go.

    We were not suffering from a shortage of bikes when the scheme was introduced, but a shortage of spaces to ride. This would be even more of a problem in Brisbane, I suspect.

    Also, how many of the cities where the scheme have taken off have a tram network like Melbourne? Why would you bother going to the trouble of getting one of these bikes out, when you could just jump on a tram? I appreciate that New York has an extensive subway, but it’s probably more work to get on it than leaping into a tram a few metres away.

  32. Nik Dow

    Alan #7

    Brisbane turns out to be in the largest 20 systems in the world:
    (excluding China). I agree they need to make casual access easier, like it is in Melbourne (i.e. walk up with a credit card), that could help to explain why they are still at less than 1/2 Melbourne’s (pathetically small) usage rate. Brisbanes scheme is large, and there are no trams there (offering competition). The scheme should be a roaring success.

    As a resident of Melbourne CBD I would love to use the share bikes but don’t carry a helmet with me. I’d love to see hundreds of them on the streets, advertising the Government’s committment to encouraging bikes, making it safer for all of us who cycle, and enlarging the support base for getting better bicycle facilities in the City. It’s not a stalking horse, which is why the Melbourne Bicycle User Group supports an exemption from helmet law for the bike share.

  33. Alan Davies

    rubbo miki #6, Nik Dow #4:

    There’s a regrettable tendency for some advocates to treat bikeshare as a stalking horse for their efforts to repeal the mandatory helmet law. Irrespective of the pros and cons of that debate, I think bikeshare should be evaluated on its own terms. The helmet law is not the only factor holding bikeshare back in Australia and unless that’s understood it’s unlikely it will ever be truly successful. The helmet law is a relevant issue (as I very plainly pointed out a number of times) but it’s not the only one – there’s more to it.

    Mike, always happy to look at ideas.

  34. rubbo mike

    Alan, you are not helping grow cycling with your continual search for reasons other than helmets for the crippling bike share here. . Why not be a bit more pro active? Look at the excellent safety record public bike schemes with helmet choice, have around the world and then ask the obvious question. If choice is not associated with added injury in all these situations,why don’t we trial, a helmet exemption for these distinctive bikes? Clover Moore is very anxious to have bike share in Sydney, I believe (ask her) but is held back by the helmet law. Thus, Sydney would be perfect for a trial. If you do see your column as helpful, please accept this challenge. I have ideas for a small , harbour hugging bike share pilot scheme in Sydney which would be adored by tourists. not expensive, and a perfect test situation.

    Unlike most bike shares,this small scheme would be aimed mostly at tourists who at the moment virtually never mount a bike and yet very often have bikes in their backgrounds. I can tell you more if you’d like to consider floating this idea on your powerful platform.

  35. Last name First name

    Parker Alan OAM,

    With regard to making bike hire schemes work in Australia there is an easy solution the police commissioner has the power to over rule an existing road rule that is creating problems with road users or takes too much police time in the courts to enforce a particular road rule. The police commissioner can exempt his police from the need to enforce the helmet law for those riding hire public bikes which are easily recognizable by as being exempt from the helmet rule.
50 years ago the Commissioner exempted cyclists from the need to have a rear mudguard painted white complete with a reflector at night time and allowing cyclists just to have a grey aluminium mudguard instead.

    Also In the 1970s police turned a blind eye to enforcing bicycle lighting laws for the 20 years because the it took to much of their time in the childrens court. I campaigned as a member of the Victorian State Bicycle Committee to reverse that obvious failure by writing articles on bicycle lighting and persuading the State bicycle committee to fund research into bicycle lighting which resulted in the enforcement of bicycle lighting laws in many states including Victoria.

    The problem in Victoria is since the 1970s the needs and problems of cyclists have never dealt with competantly by motoring and government organizations. In comparison countries like the Netherlands, Denmark and had organizations that looked after their cyclists welfare, bike-hires schemes are blossoming and helmet wearing is not compulsory, and now New York
    doing very well. Maybe Minister Mulder should go and ride a bike in these places. As a former postie and proud of it he would enjoy it

  36. Nik Dow

    Alan #1

    Longer response now I’m not on the mobile phone. A keyboard is conducive to a more detailed communication.

    Melbourne doesn’t appear on the graph but would be below the “e” in Cergy-Pontoise. So both Brisbane and Melbourne are on the edge of the data “cloud”. Are all the other Cities dense, large cities like Paris, London or NYC? Hardly. Think of a better excuse, helmet law lovers.

    Indeed, Brisbane is the worst one in the world, measured by the deviation from the regression line, and it’s hardly the smallest scheme by a long way.

    That’s right, Dublin isn’t large and dense either, so we find another reason why it’s so successful. Rains a lot there too. We could all pull out millions of unprovable speculations as to why one scheme does better than another, in order to avoid facing the obvious.

    Another piece of data to go with your opinions, Alan, is the interviews with potential bikeshare users done here in Melbourne which finds that helmet law is THE MAJOR FACTOR putting people off using the bikes. That would be a piece of evidence, but it doesn’t suit your story, so you have ignored it. Read about it at
    and note that 36% response was “hard to find a helmet” a further 25% said “don’t want to wear a helmet”. The next largest response group was 16% “bad weather”.

    It’s interesting that the 25% “don’t want to wear a helmet” group matches closely to the percentage in Prof Rissell’s study in Sydney, in relation to general cycling. What makes bikeshare especially vulnerable to helmet law is the addition of the 36% who simply can’t be bothered going looking for a helmet. All this makes Prof de Jong’s argument for the health benefits of getting rid of helmet law all the more powerful in respect of bikeshare, even if many of the trips replace walking.

    If you want to help end this nonsense, sign up on

  37. hk

    I have interviewed several hundred potential MBS users since June 2010. The main two factors for not getting on the MBS bike are: inconvenience of getting hold of a helmet and the perception of an unsafe system available to the bike rider. All my intercept interviews were with people at a docking station who appeared to need some help. Many were trying to get their credit cards to work. For those with mobiles, the RACV call center provides a very reasonable but time consuming service.
    A bouquet should be awarded to MBS for their street maps. Location information seeking was the activity of 90% of the people I chatted with.
    Is bike sharing participation an indicator of the social capital in the inner urban area served? Even in Melbourne it is only a corner of the municipalities of Port Phillip and Melbourne that contain docking stations.

  38. Alan Davies

    Nik Dow #1:

    That’s an interesting piece, although I was already aware of it. None of the facts in it contradict anything I’ve said as far as I can see.

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