Cities should support bike sharing. Not bike-watching.

The recent Velocity 2015 conference was very insightful, and made me more optimistic about future of cycling: there seems to be growing attention paid to cycling as a mode of transport equivalent to metro and busses.

Many cities are finding ways to promote cycling, and bike-sharing schemes are among the interesting options. One of the reasons to implement bike-sharing schemes is apparently increasing awareness, which comes with visibility. Hence, cities would like to have bikes lined up in a row in central areas.

Perhaps driven by the desire of visibility, cities have been funding bike-share schemes based on “availability” of bikes and stations, instead of usage of (shared) bikes. The assumption apparently is that if stations are in convenient spots, and if the price is low, people will use the bikes.

Unfortunately, that assumption is wrong.

Bicloo is the name of the bike-rental system in Nantes, operated by Velib.

People use bikes if and when they are convenient. Convenience and price together makes a package that could convert people to choose a bike or not. A large part of convenience is how far the user has to walk in order to hire and drop the rental bike, and another is ease of checking a bike out of a station.

Many systems are still not that user friendly: empty and full stations continue to be a problem for the user, and having a station that is 200m from a workplace is yet another problem to start. Stations might increase visibility, but they don’t increase convenience. It doesn’t make sense to build bike share stations in front of every business office, and people will not use bicycles if the total distance they have to walk drops only marginally. Unfortunately, they don’t walk either; they jump into their cars.

I’ve heard bike-share providers stating that they need to redistribute the bikes sometimes away from users when there are a lot of bikes in one place, say a concert. It’s obvious to expect the users who brought the bikes to also take them back. Partly because of their agreements with the cities to maintain bikes in stations, operators of bike share systems take those bikes away and put them out in stations. This expensive operation is not considering that the concert-goers will be done in about 2 hours, and will empty the nearby stations. Why did you take those bikes again?

Cities should pay for share-bikes getting used. They could be traced on how many km and by how many (unique) people they were used. That should be the (only) basis for subsidies to bike-share operators. Visibility is good, but when the system is inconvenient, that bike-share become the visibility of idiocy of politicians and administrators.

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