Guest writer Elliot Fishman recently completed his PhD Thesis on bike share and currently holds a post-doctoral position at Utrecht University: (1)
From just a handful 10 years ago, there are now over 700 cities operating bike share programs. They range in size from 90,000 bicycles in Wuhan, China to small pilot programs of little more than a dozen. Melbourne and Brisbane jumped on board in 2010, but public enthusiasm has not matched the experience from abroad. Although usage figures are slowly rising, they still sit well under just about any other program currently in operation.
Australia’s mandatory helmet laws are frequently cited as a major reason for the lower than expected uptake of bike share in Australia. Certainly not having a helmet when you need one has acted a barrier to the spontaneous usage of bike share. Asking people to carry a helmet around on the off chance they may want to use bike share later that day is a little like opening a bar and rather than providing glasses, just asking people to pack their own.
Once they’d noticed the detrimental impact of helmet laws, Australian bike share operators began a variety of measures designed to counter this impediment, including subsidised helmets at convenience stores and vending machines. It appears that perhaps the simplest idea was the most effective – just placing a helmet on the bike, with the idea that the helmet would stay with the bike. Whilst many helmets quickly ended up being used on private bikes, the initiative was effective in boosting casual usage rates.
A Queensland Parliamentary Committee recently recommended a relaxation of helmets laws, partly as a method of giving a boost to Brisbane’s bike share program, CityCycle. Research conducted by the author in Brisbane and Melbourne found bike share members felt mandatory helmet laws reduce the frequency with which they use the system. North American research found bike share users were four times less likely to wear a helmet than private bike riders. Tel Aviv and Mexico City rescinded their helmet laws before launching their bike share program.
Whilst it is clear bike share would gain a boost through a relaxation of helmet laws, bike share is just one, rather small element of the transport system and the full effects of a change in the law must be assessed. This would need to balance the trade off between the potential for more head injuries, with the safety in numbers effect of more people cycling, as well as any change to physical activity levels and the associated health impacts.
The bike share catchment area is very small in Melbourne, relative to the size of the city. In fact, Melbourne has amongst the lowest ratios of bikes per head of population (four million people and around 550 bikes). The docking stations in Melbourne are overwhelmingly located in the CBD and immediate surrounds. The result of this mismatch is that very few people (proportionally) live close enough to a docking station to make it a realistic option.
Australian (soon to be published) and North American research has shown that those who live within 250m of a docking station are considerably more likely to be members of bike share. London research has found that even among bike share members, those that live close to a docking station are significantly more likely to use the system than other members.
Moreover, for those who find themselves in the CBD but don’t live there, many arrive and depart by public transport, meaning they can use the dense public transport service for internal trips, at no additional charge. Expanding the bike share system to cover a wider area of the inner city would offer the network benefits that bike share needs to make it a compelling, convenient option.
Fear is the major barrier to bicycle riding in Australia. In recent research conducted in Brisbane, a lack of bicycle friendly infrastructure and a lack of awareness from motorists was the main reason preventing people from using CityCycle. Paris and NYC both embarked on major bicycle infrastructure developments in the years prior to launching their successful bike share program. Although Paris and NYC still have some way to go before offering Amsterdam or Copenhagen-like ride quality, Australian cities generally fall well short when it comes to bicycle friendly design. More needs to be done if bike share in Australia is to move beyond the low usage figures highlighted in the exhibit.
Starting a bike share program towards the beginning of Winter, as was the case in Melbourne, is not the best way to get off to a flying start. There is a well-established relationship between cold, wet weather and riding likelihood. The ramification for this decision is that the first six months of bike share in Melbourne led people to become accustomed to seeing the bikes unused. By the time the warmer weather came around, many people had made up their mind that bike share was not for them.
One of the lessons learnt from Brisbane is that the sign up process needs to be made as simple and rapid as possible. In Brisbane, at the time of bike share’s launch, a prospective user would be asked to listen to some 24 minutes of legal disclaimers before being granted access to the bikes, with predictable results. It is still not possible for the Brisbane system to accept a credit card swipe to grant immediate access, as is the norm in most bike share cities and up until recently, users were locked out of the system between 10pm and 5am. Thankfully, Brisbane managed to rectify this and have now opened the program 24/7.
For both schemes, much more could have been done in the early period to incentivise usage, such as ‘come and try days’, heavily discounted memberships, ‘invite a friend’ promotions and many other well accepted marketing initiatives aimed at driving membership and usage higher. Greater levels of community consultation in the early planning phase, as was the case in NYC might have helped iron out some of these problems prior to launch and this serves as a useful learning opportunity for those cities looking to establish a bike share program.
Based on the Brisbane and Melbourne experience, some questions prospective bike share cites ought to consider: Does the system provide a greater level of convenience than existing options, for a decently sized segment of the population? Does the system provide a faster, easier and cheaper transport solution for people? It is these characteristics that emerge as the major reason bike share users choose bike share in cities in which they are successful. Should cities focus on creating a compelling, competitive bike share offering, it may be possible for cities with helmet laws to run a successful, well used bike share program.
Elliot Fishman is Director of the Institute for Sensible Transport, advising cities on bike share.