Jun 5, 2014

Bike Share: What we’ve learnt from the Australian experience

Guest writer Elliot Fishman explains the reasons for Australia’s lower than expected take up of bike share. He says it may be possible for cities with helmet laws to run a successful scheme

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Bike share usage, selected cities, 2013 (NYC figures start in June as this was its first full month. Montreal closes during the Winter months)

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.


  1. Elliot Fishman is Director of the  Institute for Sensible Transport, advising cities on bike share.
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21 thoughts on “Bike Share: What we’ve learnt from the Australian experience

  1. gerry meehan

    you avoid the obvious reason:
    its too bloody expensive!

    so many little rules about docking in, credit charges etc are a big turn off.
    if i want a relaxing sunday ride i wanna just slip in a $5 token or something simple and not be stressed out im being charged per minute with hefty neocon fines etc and havta spend an houtr cancelling charges on my visa.

    you can tell the scheme was designed by money hyungry bureaucrats and not actual riders.

    make it simple and cheap.

    dodgy melbourne drivers, too few stations, the helmet kerfuffle, too few bike pathes all add up to a failed scheme.

  2. Mark Kennedy

    If the bikes were electric it would be more attractive to hire and might spearhead the use of this much improved technology.

  3. Nebojsa Pajkic

    I agree that helmet laws and poor infrastructure in Melbourne have largely contributed to the poor reception of the bike share scheme. It’s good to hear that the Melbourne city council has put aside a fair bit of money in the recent budget towards building new infrastructure, and expanding the current one, and I think Melbournians will become more receptive towards bike usage in future. Personally, I’m not a fan of the helmet laws and I think the choice should be left to bike riders, but I know that opens up a can of worms so I won’t go into any more discussion.

  4. biggest_al

    Another major factor, especially in Brisbane, is that the bikes are embarrassing! The overall bike design is unappealing, and the vivid yellow brand marketing is horrid.

    Cities need to decide whether the priority is sustainable transport, or marketing. Brisbane got the order wrong.

    Brisbane is also hilly and humid, so short trips to business meetings aren’t really an option because of the sweat-fest.

  5. Rob Watts

    I doubt the full Australian experience has been studied as other comments above suggest. In Byron B the cops rarely if ever enforce helmet laws (supposedly it is of little use fining tourists or something) and we have a high rate of cycle use and some bike tracks but still it has its dangers.

    I doubt there has been any spike in head injuries as the nanny state would have howled. There is a lot of informal sharing with houses having a house bike or two, kids riding theirs or mates bikes to surf etc.

  6. Saugoof

    You’re really coming at this from the wrong angle. Of course there are a multitude of reasons why a bike share is successful or not and you identified a lot of them here. So yes, lifting the mandatory helmet laws won’t automatically make the program successful by itself. But as long as that law exists there simply can never be a successful bike sharing program. It just is the biggest hurdle by a long shot, it’s what makes share bikes an impractical option, no matter how good our infrastructure is.
    Show me one place, anywhere, that has been able to pull it off while having helmet laws.

  7. Chris Hartwell

    I know Mulgaj – I investigated it fairly thoroughly, as I’m in the CBD often enough that the bikeshare may have been useful. As you note though, there is linkage but not actual integration – that was the factor that turned me off. It turned out to be simpler and easier to maintain so far as accounts go, to catch a bus if I needed a speedy trip (relatively) from QUT to Roma Street

  8. Nightingale John

    It is surprising and very disappointing that Elliot cites no econometric analyses of bike share usage. There appears to be plenty of data available. While this might not be able to put the various controversies to rest, it would at least give some non-anecdotal basis for argument. I fear Aaron Ball might be right – CARRSQ depends on telling the government what it wants to hear, being overwhelmingly funded by project grants rather than by ARC peer selected grants. And where would accident research be without accidents?

  9. pragmatic

    Daniel – so correct, UK drivers are generally more respectful & courteous. Come home to Oz & the traffic is impatient and aggressive.
    Regardless, you have to question the govts that introduce such schemes without addressing the helmet legislation & providing protection to cyclists (cycle lanes & pollution come to mind).
    No way would I cycle the short distance to work in melbourne.

  10. Miki Oravec

    Mulgaj, unfortunately the bike share in Melbourne is not free. Sure, time-wise a rider will not pay anything for up to half an hour. However there is an access fee of $2.80 for the day. If a daily Zone 1 adult fare is $7.16, then that equates to being an extra 39% fare increase. If a rider goes over the half hour mark on one occasion that day (say, 35mins), then the bike fare now jumps to being $4.80 for the day. That’s an increase of 67% over a Zone 1 adult fare. And going over half an hour is a real possibility if a docking station is full or a rider is not able to find a docking station easily at their destination.

    Looking at it another way, if a commuter has already paid $12.12 for a daily Zone 1+2 adult fare, they may perceive this price to already be sufficiently high. Another $2.85 would represent a 23% fare increase, with the total fare being almost $15 – that, I would say, is quite high. Again, if a rider has a time over-run, then a $4.80 bike fare would represent a 40% fare increase.

    Why would anyone bother if they could just take a tram or train with a similar level of convenience but without the hassle, extra cost & risk of over-run cost?

    I doubt helmets have much to do with it.

  11. Zoom Strange

    So far, Adelaide’s CityBike scheme is free unless you take the bike overnight. Helmets are available at the point of pickup (I usually use the Convention Centre). The bikes are clunky and slow, which I find a mild disincentive, but I still use them from time to time around the city, where I work.

    Helmets good, compulsion bad.

    Mandatory helmet advocates have so far managed to get away with dominating the compulsion debate by painting opponents of compulsion as being anti helmet, which is, ahem, thick headed, but even our most able political commentators end up focusing on this Red Herring, because it’s easier than discussing informed choice, or it suits their conservative standpoint.

  12. Mulgaj

    Clarifier: Chris, the scheme in Brisbane does allow you to link your account to your GoCard so that you can use you Gocard to get a bike. It does however keep your two billing accounts separate. Further, the first half hour is always free here Miki Oravec.
    I live pretty close to town (about 3k) and the nearest station is still 2k away. I guess that the population density has to be up to a certain threshold to support a station and, what with such sparsely settled cities, it just ain’t going to happen anytime soon.

  13. Chris Hartwell

    I’d use the bikes around Brisbane more often if I could just swipe my GoCard and be off.

  14. gapot

    The nanny state in oz seems to have thrived on public apathy. Compulsory voting is one indication of how we allow people who we deem fit to make rules run wild with the thought of public good. Then again our boys and girls who go wild in Bali where there are no rules might indicate our desire to be free of the nanny state.

  15. Miki Oravec

    Every time I see this issue pop up, time & time again nobody seems to acknowledge that there is an extra cost involved with using the various bike share systems. Many people coming into the city arrive on public transport. In Melbourne’s case, if a commuter has already paid for a daily fare, why on earth would they chose to pay an extra fare to use a bicycle when they could hop on a tram or train just as easy (if not easier)?

    For me personally, if I could touch my Myki on at a bike dock, I would often much rather choose a bicycle over a tram. But since I can’t, I am not willing to pay ~20-50% more over my zone 1+2 daily rate (on a yearly pass) for the option.

  16. Vero Wathen

    I am currently living in Lyon and can only comment on what makes the bike scheme there so successful:

    1. Ease of use and affordability – registering for the system is simple and one can register as a casual or regular user
    2. Bike station locations – they are everywhere – there are over 350 stations in Lyon and over 3 000 bikes
    3. The bikes are well maintained
    4. No bike helmet is required
    5. Lyon is a very bike-friendly city with designated bike paths in many parts of the city

    There are many factors which encourage people to use the system. Since moving to Lyon, I have rarely used public transport and have not felt the need to own a car due to the great bike sharing system. This is one of the things I will miss most when I leave.

  17. Tom Sulston

    Fear is the major barrier to bicycle riding in Australia

    … and helmet laws stoke that fear. They are the single greatest obstacle to both hire and private cycling in Australia.

    Melbourne and Brisbane are really not that different to other cities with cycle hire schemes. There’s some cycling infrastructure, but not enough. Drivers everywhere can be aggressive. The payment systems suck on all bike hire schemes. Many cities have winter, not just Melbourne. Other cities are spread out and people don’t live near docking stations.

    The key differentiator between Australian and other cities is helmet laws and that is clearly the main reason why hire cycle uptake in Australia is so poor.

  18. William Holliday

    When last in Melbourne I rode the Yarra bike path on a borrowed-all-day hotel bike. Melbourne share bikes have to be docked every half hour in a docking station which only exist in the CBD, nowhere near where I wanted to go.

  19. Aaron Ball

    It’s misleading to say fear is the major barrier to cycling, and then quote qualitative research relating specifically to Brisbane’s CityCycle scheme, which identifies three influencers: helmet laws, perceived fear and ease of sign-up.

    Fishman’s own quantitative research, linked in the above article, shows that for Melbourne’s bike share, helmet issues combined (cannot find one/do not want to wear one) accounts for over 60% of reasons why people don’t use the scheme, while perceived safety is less than 10%.
    As Fishman points out himself, Brisbane City Council’s move to place helmets with bikes led to a significant increase in use. As did extending operating hours to 24 hours, where it could be assumed that cycling at night and in the early mornings may be perceived as even more dangerous.
    Unfortunately, Fishman is associated with CARRS-Q which is staunchly opposed to helmet law reform (the name’s a bit of a giveaway) and hangs its policy position on one non-peer reviewed monograph from 2010, to keep favour with the car-centric policies of TMR senior bureaucrats and State Transport Minister who prefers his own anecdotal experience than research. This is why the recent parliamentary committee’s recommendations were largely ignored.

  20. Daniel Borton

    I’m currently holidaying in London, and registered for a 7 day pass on the bike share 4 days ago. Since then I’ve used the tube once.

    I’m definitely not a big bike rider, but have riden in Melbourne twice, and Bendigo (where I live) about once a month. What struck me the most was I felt safer riding around London than Bendigo, even without helmets, and having double-decker buses flying past. It may possibly be that my risk perception is a little out due to being on holidays, but I don’t think that’s entirely it.

    I find the drivers far more courteous and aware, and willing to share the road space. This may be due to increased awareness of drivers due to so many more pedestrians, and I’m sure it’s also helped by the number of cyclists they are (more than Melbourne, but fewer cars).

    The other thing is the cyclists seem more relaxed and aware of their surroundings. They’re more upright, and slower. Perhaps because London is so much more dense, they don’t have as far to travel.

    I’ve found it fantastic. It puts me above ground, and I get to see the city (great being a planner), it’s actually quicker than 3-4 stops on the tube, or even 2 stops if you need to change lines. It’s really convenient, the only problem was trying to get home from Soho 4 nights ago, all four stations I went to were empty.

  21. IkaInk

    An excellent summary of why Melbourne and Brisbane’s systems have failed. All salient points. Does anyone know of any other cities that are rolling out bike share that have MHL?

    The only other city that I’m aware of is Vancouver, but unfortunately their program has been delayed (again) by Bixi going bankrupt. As Vancouver is generally very good at transport planning, I imagine they’ll get the other factors right, so it may be a valuable case study for the MHL and bike share question.

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