3/8/2011 by Janett Büttner
While in 2001 only a few Bike Share Systems (BSSs) were running in Europe by 2011, 400 schemes were in existence in the OBIS countries alone (Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom). Why has there been such growth in these schemes, where are they headed and what should planners do if they want to make sure their scheme is successful. We took the time to quiz Janett Büttner who was involved in producing the invaluable OBIS guide: “Optimizing Bike Sharing Across Europe: A Handbook”. Enjoy!
Q: Why do you think bike sharing schemes have sprung up so rapidly over the past couple of years?
A: From my point of view, there is always a concrete trigger but there are more general reasons for the implementation of bike sharing schemes.
The trigger for the actual implementation of a BSS is often a mayor or a party who is looking for a topic that is suitable to cast a positive light on them. BSS are relatively easy to implement and compared to other mobility infrastructure measures, they are relatively cheap. At the end of the day they support the green image of a city.
The reasons apart from the actual trigger might lie in the need for more liveable cities. Cities and their infrastructure were built around cars. Many cities suffer from traffic jams, a lack of space and air pollution. Thus people (re)discover the bike as suitable means of transport. Any mayor who has a look at cities like Copenhagen or Amsterdam sees that as the modal share for bicycles (and PT) increases, so does the quality of life within a city. In cities where cycling is not yet very popular, BSS can help to underscore the importance of the bike.
Fuel and parking space is expensive. Some cities like London introduced a congestion charge. Thus using the car has become much more expensive. The alternative-PT-is a collective means of transport which many find unattractive due to high prices, schedules and crowded vehicles. The bike as an individual means of transport is cheap (and fun to ride) and is becoming a serious alternative for many in cities.
Q: What are the main issues for a city wanting to introduce a bike sharing scheme to consider?
A: Some major schemes in Europe e.g. Vélib’ in Paris were introduced by the city because they were part of an advertising contract. At this time the broad effects of bike sharing schemes were mostly unknown and thus the city authorities presumably did not have concrete goals that they wanted to achieve with the schemes. As the bike sharing market grows, the knowledge basis becomes broader and cities can today better estimate the effects of a bike sharing scheme. First and foremost, the schemes are a relatively easy and realisable measure to foster cycling while also having a major publicity effect. Inhabitants identify with the schemes and make them part of their daily routines and they attract tourists and canmake public transport more attractive.
The basis for a successful scheme is having an individual set of goals, so that the city clearly sets out what it wants to achieve with the schemes. In one city the focus might lie on improving the overall cycling modal share, in another city the main goal might be the optimisation of public transport usage. Thus a feasibility study is essential as preparation for planning and implementation. The other important factor is getting all relevant stakeholders –city administrations, planning departments, public transport, cycling organisations, companies etc. –at one table.
Q: Bike sharing may compete with street space, parking, pavements etc. Do any problems arise in terms of planning?
A: Most cities suffer from a lack of space. Different kinds of infrastructure compete for the limited amount of space available. As many cities are still “car-cities”, there is an entitlement mentality amongst car drivers. Parking space is taken for granted. To pave the way towards more livable cities, the priorities need to change. Assuming that several rental bikes can be offered using the same space that one car needs, it should not be much of a problem to find adequate space for a bike sharing scheme, once the (political) priorities are adjusted. As cycling goes hand in hand with walking and the use of public transport, space should not be taken away from this form of transport. .
Q: Do you think it will be possible to make a bike sharing scheme financially self-sufficient?
A: Bike sharing schemes need at least two sources of financing. One source of income in almost all schemes comes from charges. Users pay access fees and usage fees. As most schemes offer a certain time of the rental period free of charge to attract users, the income from usage fees is rather low. In most cases the access fees (as monthly fee, yearly fee) are not sufficient to finance the scheme. Thus additional financing sources (e.g. sponsoring, parking space management, advertisement or public funding). Depending on the desired effects of the scheme, public funding can be justifiable. The positive effects like an increase in cycling modal share or and use of public transport can compensate for the spending of public money. Wherever bike sharing schemes are considered parts of public transport, public funding must be an imaginable source of financing as public transport systems are not self sustainable from a business-management perspective but they do provide widely documented positive effects for cities and citizens
Q: How do you see bike sharing schemes developing in the future?
A: Whether BSSs are a sustainable phenomenon depends on the ability of operators to address their shortcomings (costs, redistribution) but it is likely that BSS will become/remain a natural part of the mobility portfolio in many medium and large cities in the medium term. The combination with PT, electric bikes or car sharing will provide important perspectives in the coming years. BSS can be considered as a catalyst for change. They can never provide enough bikes to significantly alter the percentage of modal share but they can bring people back onto their private bikes and offer a transport ‘complement’ whenever it is needed.
Many developing countries in the world e.g. in Africa are still uncharted territory for bike sharing. For those countries alternative schemes that are cheaper to implement and easy to maintain, need to be developed. They might not provide high-tech access or luxury bikes but they can provide a cheap (or free) mobility option for all segments of the population
Q: It has been proven that the installation of BSS can largely improve the cycling situation in a city and boost its cycling modal share. Why do you think some cities are still reluctant to install it?
A: Many city authorities might not be reluctant but rather unaware of the positive impacts of the schemes. They see massive costs and calculate them against the expected direct effects (e.g. number of rides) of the scheme. What they often do not consider are the indirect effects (modal share change, public transport attractiveness, effects on tourism and health, image effects) that can be harder to calculate. If those indirect effects can be made known more widely, then more city administrations might consider bike sharing as a tool to improve infrastructure in their city. A tool to spread the word about the positive effects of bike sharing is the OBIS Handbook that compiles figures and experiences from all over Europe.
Q: Not all bike sharing schemes have been successful. What were the reasons for some schemes’ failure or success?
A: The question is: what is success? The operator wants to earn money with the scheme; the mayor wants visibility and low costs, the user wants easy and cheap usage. In the OBIS project, the survival of the schemes (which means that the scheme is sustainable) was considered as criteria for success. Different aspects, e.g. high usage rates and efficient costs structures contribute to this also. Interdependencies between different aspects make it hard to optimise bike sharing schemes. Most schemes for example, offer a certain rental period free of charge for each ride. This does foster the overall usage rates but decreases rental incomes at the same time.
Schemes that do not find the right balance might fail. The OBIS sample did also include three schemes that failed but in all those cases the idea of bike sharing was not lost and the old scheme was replaced by an improved one.
Even though success of bike sharing schemes is a complex field, there are some aspects that are known to hinder the success of the scheme.
Janett Büttner is an economist and managing director of choice GmbH, a mobility consultancy in Berlin. During the last years she focused on intermodal mobility concepts connected with bike sharing and car sharing. She provides advice to municipalities, authorities, operators and associations. Büttner is the coordinator of the OBIS project.
A copy of the OBIS Handbook can be downloaded here: Optimising Bike Sharing in European Cities.pdf
Aside from the Great OBIS handbook here are some other resources to satisfy your appetite.