Monday, April 19, 2010

CityCycle scheme, bicycle helmet laws, and a better alternative

In my bio I promise to turn ideas on their heads to gain a better understanding. In this spirit I ask the following question of Brisbane City Council’s proposed CityCycle bicycle hire scheme – is it better for council to subsidise a bicycle hire scheme to stimulate bicycle use, or is it better for council to subsidise a car hire scheme to encourage bicycle use?

(And yes council will have to subsidise the scheme through the donation of public space, and possible contributions to ongoing costs, as has happened with such schemes in Europe, even though hire costs and advertising on bikes provide the main sources of revenue for the operator).

I suggest the latter may be preferable. Here is my logic.

Council declares the purpose of the bicycle hire scheme is to encourage short trips by bike. It offers the first half hour of hire for free to encourage such short trips to be undertaken. As far as I can tell at this stage, it will also offer long term subscription for “about 17c per day”. However, a single day hire will be $11. The incentives appear to be stacked towards either very short trips or very long hire.

While such schemes operate relatively successfully in many cities around the world, Paris, Barcelona, Vienna, Amsterdam, Oslo and Lyon for example, there are many local conditions that favour cycling in these cities. These cities are generally flat, have wide streets, low speed limits, cool climates, bicycle lanes, high urban density, and no helmet laws.

Even with these advantages, these schemes still face major problems. The now famous Velib scheme in Paris has had to replace its whole fleet of 20,000 bikes within two years due to vandalism and theft. They have also implemented an incentive scheme to encourage users to deposit bikes at stations at the top of hills and on the outskirts of the city. If we want to determine the success of this scheme we are still left with a burning issue.

But for all the hype, has VĂ©lib' actually stopped people using their cars? Anecdotally, most people using the bikes are coming off public transport, seeking an alternative to bus, metro and expensive Paris taxis at night. At rail stations, so great is the rush for suburban commuters to jump on bikes rather than cram into Metro carriages that some have tried to lock up bikes on stands at night to secure them for the morning.

Regardless, some more general benefits have been observed:

But the increase in people cycling does seem to be boosting bike awareness and challenging the car mentality. Paris, with its wide streets, is already a better city for cyclists than London. And no, you don't wear shorts, helmet or pollution mask; most people prefer a suit or high heels. Blase cyclists can be seen negotiating the high-speed free-for-all that is the Place de la Concorde while puffing a cigarette and calling a friend.

In sum, it seems that the scheme is taken up with tourists, drunks, and commuters already using public transport, yet the mass of cyclists does raise awareness and make cycling appear the normal thing to do.

What about Brisbane?

In Brisbane we have a number of local conditions that discourage cycling; intolerant drivers, few connected bicycle routes, burning hot summers, low urban density and steep hills – the same things that currently discourage bicycle use. And lastly there is one big problem, helmet laws (which are also undermining Melbourne's ambitious bike hire scheme)

How do you get people on a bike for a trip less than half an hour if a helmet is needed? Are helmets included? Is there a helmet vending machine at each station? This is a make or break issue. Local bike mechanic Jens Uhseman, from Bicycle Revolution at West End, a store that also offers a bike hire service, offers this opinion on the matter:

The problem is getting people on the bikes anyway. If they wanted to go on them they would have their own bikes. Even when we sell cheap bikes to students we have to tell nearly every second person they need a helmet in this country.

If the inconvenience of helmets discourages the main users of such a system - tourists, drunks, and commuters already on public transport - who is left to ride these bikes? Regular local cyclists may take up the offer of a free half hour, but having your own bike, helmet and lock is cheap and allows you to be much more flexible. Even though I live just fifty metres from a proposed CityCycle station, I will probably still use my own bike for commuting around the city.

To summarise the analysis so far, the European cities where bike hire schemes are successful have far more incentives for cycling, including no helmet laws, yet they still don’t get cars off the road and are a financial burden on the city council.

If the Brisbane City Council was serious about cycling as a viable means of urban transport they would offer incentives to get people out of cars (even out of crowded bus and train routes) and onto bikes. They need to make cycling faster (bike lanes, short cuts around steep hills, connected bikeways), and safer (more road space for cyclists for example).

One might assume from this analysis that the Brisbane City Council is not serious about cycling, but is using the scheme as a cheap means of buying the Green vote. Not such a crazy idea.

But is there a better way?

To increase cycling and get people out of cars I might suggest that Council push for a car hire scheme with depots around town stretching out further into the suburbs. People living nearby a depot might decide that there are significant financial rewards if they sell their car and commute by bike, using the hire care when necessary. Cars are far more expensive to run than bikes ($1,000/year for a cheap car plus fuel costs, and less than $100/year for a bike), and if people are doing away with car ownership it may encourage a city wide shift to alternative modes of transport.

On top of this scheme you could offer other incentives to decrease care ownership, such as a higher registration rates for a household’s second car or other financial disincentives.

Whether a bike hire or car hire scheme will decrease congestion, decrease urban pollution, and get people into more healthy habits remains a matter for debate, however there is one strong message emerging - implementing a bicycle hire scheme to encourage bicycle use is putting the cart before the horse. Once cycling becomes a viable means of transport, with a useful network of bike paths and street space, then a bike hire scheme may add to a cycling culture in this city. But if the experience in Paris is anything to go by I have reason to worry that implementing the bike hire scheme may backfire and fuel Brisbane's pro-car lobby.

Already taxi and bus drivers are complaining about the mass of inexperienced cyclists hogging bus lanes. Paris city hall has stamped rules of the road on the handlebars such as "Don't cycle along pavements". But everyone knows rules are made to be broken. Of regular Paris cyclists, 71% admit to jumping red lights, over a third regularly go the wrong way up one-way streets, and more than half cycle without lights at night.

In any case this bike scheme is an interesting experiment economically, technically, and politically.


  1. What is the risk that a bicycle will not be available at a depot, at the start of a working day? People can't afford often to be late for work.

    About sharing helmets, I ask: head lice?

    People can already own and use bicycles. If the only problem is bicycle garages, then why don't we see them now? It can't possibly be that it is the cost of the bicycle that is stopping people.

    If bicycle garaging is too expensive, difficult, or insecure, then what makes Government think that it is efficient to pay those costs as a subsidy?

    When people have accidents on poorly maintained public bicycles (bad brakes?), the costs of lawsuits will be "unexpectedly" high.

    To promote bicycle use and actually displace cars, you would need cheap, convenient car rentals, to fill in the remaining high-value needs of current car owners, even after moving most of their activities out of their car.

    Even if I can commute to work on a bicycle, can I also pick up groceries on the way back? How about 4 bags of groceries for a family?

    Easy Opinions

  2. Andrew,
    There is always a risk a bike station will be empty. In Paris they offer financial incentives for people to take bicycles in to depots where people rarely leave bikes - the ones on top of hills, and on the outskirts of town.
    The system takes some tweaking before it functions reliably.
    And yes, cost is clearly not a barrier to cycling. Why not simply use the space from the scheme for bicycle racks, lockers, bike lanes etc?

  3. Amsterdam - they just love bicycles there. I don't know if our physche will take to the idea of bicycle rentals, but why not set the space aside and rent it to a private concern. The BCC can offer cheap rent in the beginning until it can be established whether or not this is a viable business. In my view a private concern will be more efficient, and more motivated.

    That would also offer a lower risk for the BCC and perhaps another income stream. It is much easier to be a landlord than a business owner.

    While I'm offering suggestions to the BCC. We are currently building walk bridges over the river, and I support that. But if anyone has been to the Ponte De Vecchio in Florence, they would recognise what an opportunity the BCC have to build a bridge that is both a walkway, as well as a place of small commerce in a picturesque setting that would be a hit with tourists. They could create space for a limited number of coffee shops, gift stores etc as long as the bridge is positioned well. In Florence it is jewellery, but here the theme could be anything.

    More great real estate to earn revenue for the BCC whilst still creating the walk bridges that they want.

  4. Cam - check out street car its a short term car rental facility that works well here.

    While I like the bicycle stations, I believe it will require a large number of well placed stations to become effective, plus more pathways for cycling.

  5. The mandatory use of helmets is a big issue. We are one of the few countries in the world to have this restriction which has never been proven of benefit except to manufacturers and retailers. It is so nice in Europe and just about every other country in the world to be able to ride a bike and to have the choice. I suspect that helmets will have a negative impact on the hire system. Andrew's comment about head lice is quite daunting!

    A company called GoGet has cars located in inner Brisbane on a similar arrangement to Streetcar. They are way bigger in Sydney but are expanding it seems. A great idea!

  6. @ Andrew

    "Even if I can commute to work on a bicycle, can I also pick up groceries on the way back? How about 4 bags of groceries for a family?"

    Absolutely. A simple option is panniers. Another option is a cargo bike extension like the Xtracyle (see I commute, carry my son to school, and can easily carry 4 bags of groceries with this bike.

    People in Barcelona like the scheme there because they don't have to worry about their own bikes being stolen. Theft is a big problem over there, but I don't recall that theft of the hire bikes was a problem, as they are so distinctive. The council had to spend a lot on maintaining them though.

  7. Hey Cam - great post - I reckon bicycle schemes are a great idea in principle, but the BCC is completely jumping the gun in trying to implement one here and is essentially assuming that the reason why people aren't riding bikes is either (a) because they don't own one, or (b) because they live too far away and only want to use one in the inner city. I reckon that neither assumption really stands up and there are a whole host of reasons for which these schemes work elsewhere and not here.

    People cycle in Amsterdam and other European cities because it's far more convenient than driving - the roads are narrow, parking is limited and petrol costs a lot. It's generally faster to ride, you can park anywhere and because the city is geographically far smaller as well as flatter it's also a lot more attractive. In Brisbane, the city is spread out, hilly, parking is relatively plentiful and petrol relatively cheap so driving is by far the most convenient mode of transport.

    I'd say that other barriers to people riding bikes (as you said) are helmet hair, hills, scared of riding on the roads, not knowing the way or where bike paths are, being sweaty when they arrive, and not having a place to shower and change, as well as it just not being a social norm. I'm sure some of those barriers are said with a bit of a laugh, but I was told at my last job to stop riding in because of arriving sweaty and having to change in the public bathrooms!

    I would definitely agree that the best way to get people to ride bikes is to make driving a car less convenient - but as a city we've taken exactly the opposite route and hence I wonder if this scheme could ever really work. You mentioned Bogota in your later post, and I reckon one of the main reasons that people have started to ride bikes so much there is that they're put such heavy restrictions on how much people can drive.

    There's a great behaviour change methodology called 'Community Based Social Marketing' that explores a lot of these ideas about how you get a community to change their behaviour - have you heard of it? It's really interesting to start thinking about these things in that context.

  8. I don't think we should have a bike station, as everyone living in new farm, Valley own our own bikes so why waste the space!!!

  9. I thought we won the war against these people in 1945- Nazi's.... they tell you what you must do- wear a helmet!
    They tell you what brand of bicycle you must ride! (try parking a privately owned bike at the station!)
    Really!!!! the sooner we bury the last baby boomer the better, as they are all just a bunch of backhander merchants, like Gordon Nutall!
    The advertising space at the stations is where the real money went to and you and me paid for them to profit from it.
    Lets stick to the free society idea.. hey?

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