Tag: Bike-Sharing

What’s all the fuss? In the right city, dockless bike sharing is a simple, genteel experience

In Seattle, it was heralded as an urban paradigm shift. In China, it was cited as evidence of a declining national character. In Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, it felt positively genteel.

Victoria dockless bike share

My Ubicycle in front of the B.C. Legislature building in Victoria. Photo by Tom Babin

I’m speaking of dockless bike-share systems, and after reading about them being implemented in cities all over the world, I finally got a chance to try one during a recent trip to Victoria.

Dockless bike-share systems are heralded as the next generation of bike sharing. Rather than being built around a network of docking stations, each bike is equipped with a smartphone-enabled lock and GPS device. The systems are as easy to use as car-sharing systems such as Car2go: Use the app to locate a bike, scan the bike’s QR code and it will unlock. Ride it to your heart’s content. When you’re done, lock it up and be on your merry way. The app charges you for the time you rode.

Victoria is the first city in Canada to catch this latest wave. Ubicycle is behind the city’s scheme, one of a handful of Chinese companies that have dropped tens of thousands of bikes into Chinese cities, and spent millions of dollars bringing such systems to North America, in ways that have not always been smooth (and sometimes disastrous).

Victoria dockless bike share

Spinning around lovely Victoria. Photo by Tom Babin.

The first thing you have to know is a bit about Victoria. The capital of B.C. isn’t exactly Hangzhou. A government town of 85,000, the city is known for its British character, temperate climate and status in the retirement dreams of every snow-weary Canadian east of the Rockies. After a few days in the city, I’ll add a few modifiers: The city is as clean as a NASA lab, its rush hour is adorable, and it’s filled with cyclists taking advantage of a bunch of painted lanes, some beautiful pathways and two kilometres of buffered bike lane. With up to 25 per cent of commuters choosing bikes, the city is doing something right for cyclists. As far as cities go, it’s positively genteel.

The lime green Ubicicyle bikes are scattered throughout the downtown, parked on sidewalks and streets, secured by wheel locks. Victoria is filled with bike racks, but Ubicycles don’t need to be secured to a rack, which led me to observe perhaps the most Canadian thing ever: While those in other cities complain about dockless bikes being strewn about the streets in inconvenient locations, most of the Ubicycles I saw were parked beside existing bike racks. Not locked to the rack, mind you, just parked beside it, as if the previous rider didn’t want to offend any passersby by parking the bike in their path. Did I say the city feels genteel?

After exploring the city for a few days from the saddle of a Ubicycle (need I mention that a bike is the best way to explore a city?), I have a few observations to share:

Victoria dockless bike share

Although it is perfectly legal to leave the bike in all kinds of places in downtown Victoria, I felt like a vandal for this waterfront sidewalk drop because most of the bikes I encountered had been neatly placed near bike racks by other, apparently more conscientious, users. Photo by Tom Babin.

Convenience

One of the great advantages of dockless bike-share systems is their convenience. No more hunting for a docking station. You just park where you stop. Yes, this is an improvement. However, in cities with great bike-share systems, this isn’t really a problem. Montreal, for example, is so strewn with docking stations that finding one nearby is rarely a problem. The key for all systems is to ensure there enough bikes distributed through the city to meet demand at the right times. This often comes down to an old-fashioned idea: trucking bikes around and dropping them in the right spots. From my limited time in Victoria, distribution seemed just fine, but with some caveats. Read on.

The clutter factor

In other cities that have failed to fully commit to a bike-share system, a lack of docking stations can be a death knell for the system. So too can a lack of bikes. So too can a lack of riders. Victoria’s system has only been in operation for a few weeks, so it’s probably too early to judge its success in this area. But I’d hardly say the streets are littered with bikes. In fact, I’d say, based on having to hoof it a few blocks to find a bike more than once, there’s a chance there are not enough bikes, albeit after the problems of too many bikes in other cities, perhaps this is a good starting point. Also, if ridership is a sign of a thriving system, I’d be worried about the health of the system. I have no data to back this up, but I used the same bike multiple times over two days and nobody else picked it up in the meantime.

Cost

There’s a big variance in cost across bike-sharing systems around the continent. One thing this new wave of dockless systems has going for it is affordability. The same holds true in Victoria. The price for a ride is absurdly low: $1 per half-hour. I ran an errand over lunch hour and the ride cost me less than 60 cents. I thought it was an error it was so low. Whether this low cost is sustainable over the long run will be interesting to see. But until then, just get out there and enjoy it.

The mood

One thing that can’t be ignored, considering the problems dockless systems have run into in China, is the way the bikes are being used. Bikes can be vandalized, strewn about haphazardly, parked in illegal locations and tossed into waterways. So far, this doesn’t seem to be a major problem in Victoria. There will always be such problems, but perhaps a small city known for its (sorry) genteel character in a country known for its politeness, a dockless system seems to be doing OK.

The verdict

Ubicycle in Victoria seems to be working. As a tourist, it’s a fantastic way of getting around. The locals I spoke with saw it as a convenient and easy option, and wondered what all the fuss was about. It seemed to be working so well that the drama-loving side of me was a bit disappointed—where’s all the hand-wringing and endless debates about cycling? Yawn.

Because of its small size, Victoria may never have the thriving bike-share systems of New York, for example, but perhaps this will be the opportunity to test whether mid-sized cities can successfully operate a system. I, for one, can’t wait to get back and try it again.

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

‘Uber for bikes’ is here, and traditional bike-sharing companies are feeling the heat

There’s a giant urban bicycle experiment happening right now on the streets of Seattle that may change the way everybody gets around. Or it may lead to an epic flop that burns through venture-capital cash and leaves the streets littered with derelict bikes.

Either way, the last month has ushered in a new wave of bike-sharing that has shaken up the still-young industry and will have profound implications for all cities, particularly the few remaining North America ones that have yet to embrace a bike-sharing program.

This experiment began earlier this summer from the ashes of Seattle’s failed municipal bike-sharing program called Pronto. Pronto was similar to other, traditional bike-shares you see in most cities these days: docks that held bikes were placed on city streets for use by members for short-term rides, similar to Montreal’s pioneering Bixi program and New York’s massive and successful Citibike.

LimeBike has, so far, avoided some of the problems that have plagued dockless bike-share systems in China. Photo by LimeBike.

The problem was, in Seattle, the system never really caught on. The city failed to commit enough docking stations and bikes necessary to make the system convenient and easy to use, and government infighting doomed it.

When the city shuttered the program in March, however, it opened the door to something new. It started issuing permits to a raft of new companies boasting they had a new formula to make bike sharing work where the city had failed.

Within weeks, three companies — called Spin, LimeBike and Chinese company Ofo (each with bikes brightly painted in their own distinctive colours) — had flooded the streets with thousands of bikes using new technology some are calling bike-share 2.0, or more lazily, Uber for bikes. 

There are some key differences to these new programs that those older ones you’ve probably used before. First, they are known as dockless systems, meaning the bikes are equipped with smartphone-enabled locks and GPS, so bikes can be left on the streets and picked up by new riders almost anywhere, without the need to park them in docking stations.

With three competing privately run bike-share systems in Seattle, including Spin, questions about their long-term viability are legit. Photo by Spin.

And perhaps more importantly, they are privately run. With a few notable exceptions, most North-American bike-share programs are operated with at least some government money. In Seattle, however, all three companies, flush with venture-capital money and the tech-industry hubris that comes with it, are using Seattle as a testing ground of new privately-funded systems they hope can challenge the traditional bike-share model elsewhere.

Despite some techie buzz around the dockless system, there are risks. In some Chinese cities, thousands of bikes were poured onto city streets which, without proper management, led to mass vandalism, bikes being parked illegally and some already infamous incidents of hundreds of bikes being dumped. It’s even prompted some soul-searching about the nature of the Chinese character.

So far, Seattle has largely avoided such mass problems, according to Seattle bike blogger Tom Fucoloro. For the most part, users seem to be following the rules about parking the bikes, he told me.

“With any system where you have lots of users, there are going to be some people who don’t follow the rules,” Fucoloro said. “The vast majority of people are parking them really well. It’s just vandals. A couple thrown off of overpasses. For the most part, it’s working really well.”

LimeBike is one of the bike-sharing companies that is now competing in Seattle. Photo by LimeBike.

In fact, far from just avoiding problems, Fucoloro says the new system is thriving. Within only a couple of weeks, data showed that the dockless bikes were being more heavily used than the old Pronto bikes ever were. Fucoloro says that’s because the new bikes are meeting the most basic needs of a successful bike-share system in ways the old system wasn’t: bikes are where you need them, when you need them.

Still, there are skeptics out there. Traditional bike-share companies are warily eyeing the new startups, not only as a source of competition, but to see if these flashy upstarts are committed in the long run. Operating a successful bike-share system requires much more than simply pouring bikes onto streets. There’s a huge amount of management that’s needed: bikes need to be moved around to places of need, broken bikes need to be attended to, technology needs to be maintained.

Madeline Kaye of Motivate, the company that operates several bike-share systems around the world, including North America’s biggest in New York, told me that working closely with city managers is a big part of the company’s success.

“It’s really complex system,” she said. “We have increased ridership in every city we’ve operated in. We’ve increased the size. Part of that is being able to work with cites. Part of that is managing the system and rebalancing the system in an effective way.”

Spin is a dockless bike-sharing system that offers rides for $1 in Seattle. Photo by Spin.

She’s not wrong. There’s a formula to running a bike share properly. In the past several weeks, I’ve used bike-sharing systems in Vancouver, Ottawa and Montreal, and the latter was miles better than the others. The secret to Montreal’s success is simple: The were enough bikes and docking stations at the right place at the right time to make it convenient, the smartphone app was good, and the system was affordable. The other systems failed on one or all counts.

There’s no guarantee yet these new companies can keep the system running in the long run, especially at the rock-bottom prices that are currently being offered to entice new users in Seattle ($1 per ride, in some cases).

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Montreal’s Bixi program works, like other successful bike-sharing systems, partly because of the behind-the-scenes work to keep bikes in places where they are needed. Photo by Tom Babin.

 

Fucoloro agrees, and says he’s maintaining a healthy dose of skepticism in the back of his mind. In the front of it, however, he’s revelling in the buzz the new systems have brought to cycling in Seattle.

“As someone who has been active in bicycle activism for a while, often feels that you are the underdog or bikes are an afterthought,” he said. “Here we have some big-money investment betting there are a lot of potential bike rides not being made, and these companies think it’s a matter of convenience. If they can provide bikes that are convenient to use at a price that is extremely competitive … that’s not just good for Seattle, it’s good for the world.”

There’s another matter to consider: I’m writing this from Calgary, which shares the dubious distinction of being one of the few major cities in North America that don’t have a permanent bike-share program of some kind in place. Now, thanks to Seattle, perhaps all those years of foot-dragging may pay off.

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