Dockless share bikes are dotted across Australia’s major cities – useful to some, seemingly a nuisance to many. In Sydney, the debate is dominated by the accusation that bike share is a “bad thing” affecting the city, and that we would be better off kicking the bikes out.
Not so fast. Recently the Committee for Sydney has been investigating how to make the most out of bike share – and while there’s work to be done to make them work for everyone, the benefit in getting the balance right is enormous.
We recently hosted a small discussion on bike share with Ben Posetti, chief marketing officer for Donkey Republic, a Copenhagen-based bike share company. It was fascinating to hear how Europe has dealt with the opportunities and challenges presented by the influx of thousands of bikes onto the streets of their cities. Europe (and North America) have been exposed to bike share for a few years more than Australia – both from local companies and the global bike share companies started in China.
Not all reactions have been positive. Amsterdam had four companies start in their city and in reaction the city government banned all bike share for six months while they developed regulation. This might work in a flat cycling culture like the Netherlands, but such a response in Sydney would kill bike share quicker than the occasional bike thrown in a river is managing.
Other reactions have been more nuanced. Some cities limit the number of companies that can legally operate in their city, while others limit the total number of bikes. While they prevent people just setting up without authorisation, the proposal process for new entrants to the market is lightweight and transparent.
A couple of key regulatory themes for success came through that Sydney should learn from.
One great option is for “virtual stations”, a model taking the best aspects of free-floating bikes and the older docked-bike systems. It works by creating geo-fenced areas where bikes can be parked, which are typically five metres wide. Users can’t end their trip outside of these fenced areas, but there’s typically a station every 200 metres or so. This solves two fundamental challenges of docked bikes: when a dock if full, a cyclist has to cycle around to find an alternative dock; and these docks are expensive to install.
But this model also solved the criticisms of free-floating bikes. Local government can identify where they want these virtual stations to be, and in doing so have some control over the locations bikes end up – more bikes in unobtrusive locations, less bikes sprawled across narrow sidewalks. It also means government has a lot more capacity to identify areas of over-saturation or problematic blocking of public space and limit bikes being left there.
The second commonality in successful bike share cities was the need for data-sharing between companies and government. While this was originally driven by a concern about data privacy, it also encouraged bike share companies to adhere to minimum standards.
Along with requiring access to data, city governments can set targets for maintenance and a requirement that a high proportion of the bike fleet be active and available (so not hanging from a tree or sitting at the bottom of a river). By having access to the data, governments can receive reliable reporting on how companies are performing on these targets.
Crucially, cities seeing success from bike share work closely with companies – understanding their business and ensuring that regulation fosters innovation rather than stifling it. Sydney should avoid the Amsterdam experience.
Finally, it is important to remember the opportunity of bike share. Shenzen saw an explosion in bikes over recent years and saw an incredible 10 per cent modal shift from cars to bikes over 18 months as a result.
If we are to achieve the Greater Sydney Commission and Future Transport’s ambition of a 30-minute city – where people can access jobs and centres within 30 minutes by public or active transport – there is no doubt that bike share can play an important role in changing attitudes towards cycling.
Eamon Waterford is acting chief executive of the Committee for Sydney.