Bikeshare’s future looks great – If cities can address these key challenges

union jack, steve p2008As 2016 rumbles on, the forecasts and fortune telling for the new year continues apace. In transportation, the headlines have mainly been won by the automobile of the future: driverless, electric, perhaps ownerless. I would like to put forward another candidate for transport form of the future: bikeshare, or as it’s known in the UK, cycle hire.

Bikeshare is the perfect fit for the 21st century. It is a publicly-available form of private transport, with smart infrastructure, operation and payment systems and real time, location-specific information. It is also a moving advertisement for the ability of cities to tackle modern challenges to public health, the environment, safety and access. Meanwhile, users get all the choice without any of the commitment, a perfect example of the sharing economy.

Over the last decade, bikesharing has evolved from vacation bicycle rentals, organizational bikes fleets, and a few tentative trials into a full scale form of urban transport operational in hundreds of cities world-wide. It is not a stand-alone transportation system, but complements existing public and private transport networks and is growing in popularity and importance and helping the bicycle grow its overall mode share.

But the future of bikeshare is not all plain sailing. Poor bicycling infrastructure, wavering political support and unrealistic business models could make recent progress falter. Unless we make sure that doesn’t happen.

There is a desire for bikeshare among 21st century urban populations. The market for access to such on-demand goods and services is burgeoning everywhere from TV to travel. In transportation terms, fewer people want to own, store and maintain their own bicycle (or car). However, they do want to choose their route, the length of ride, whether they want to take a bus or get a lift for the return journey.

These populations want ease of access and convenience, which means readily-available, geographic information, which is accurate in real time on their phones. Third generation bikeshare systems have RFID chips and sometimes GPS trackers built into the bicycles. The docking stations are smart too. Most systems have their own apps. And as Moovit adds bikeshare data from around the world to its app, the complete transportation package is becoming reality.

Unfortunately, that reality still fails to reach as wide a swathe of those urban populations as it should. Various bikeshare customer surveys indicate that the ridership is skewed towards young, white, male urban professionals. Are women, for example, who have voiced their preference in other surveys for traffic and more safety measures, discouraged by poor quality bicycle infrastructure? According to the handbook “Optimising Bike Sharing in European Cities,” the presence or absence of basic cycling infrastructure is its number one factor for the success and survival of bikeshare systems.

Meanwhile, bikeshare is an emblem of civic pride in many places where mayors and municipal leaders want to showcase their efforts to improve public health and reduce carbon emissions and air pollution. However, because of the publicity bikeshare can attract, local governments can also lack commitment. They may be willing to fund only pilot systems, which are much more likely to fail as they do not provide sufficient coverage and convenience to attract significant ridership and fare income. Or they may only fund initial implementation, expecting the operators to make a business of it without further assistance to find funding, sponsors, expansion sites, etc.

Which brings us to the third threat to bikeshare’s current success and future potential: unrealistic business models. Unfortunately, my observations of two years ago, regarding fixed funding and constrained user fees, are still relevant. London may have attracted a new sponsor and increased its ridership figures again, and New York’s system has also seen improvements, but the obstacle of funding uncertainty remains for many programs. I was excited to hear about the Bikeshare Transit Act being introduced in the U.S. Congress by two congressmen who want to see funding certainty provided to bikeshare systems in the same way it is provided to other public transportation: through regular national subsidies. Could that happen in the UK too?

Whether by national legislation or neighborhood action, my crystal ball shows that bikeshare is a perfect fit to be the 21st century poster child for urban transportation. Now let’s make that fortune into the actual future.

Photo: Visitors to Kensington Gardens prepare to rent a Barclays Cycle Hire bike, aka Boris Bikes, in London (Garry Knight, Flickr, Creative Commons).

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