On yer bike
They’re ubitiquous overseas, but in Australia, it seems impossible to make a bike-sharing system work. Nic Huntington asks: why?
The first Australian bike-share program, the Adelaide Free Bikes scheme, launched way back in 2005. However, the current wave of paid bike-hire schemes didn’t really take off until 2010, when Brisbane’s CityCycle and Melbourne’s Bike Share programs were introduced.
Today, none of these programs survive—Adelaide’s pioneering scheme folded in 2019, along with Melbourne’s Bike Share, while 2020 saw the demise of CityCycle. Similar schemes have been huge successes in cities around the world—so why can’t anyone get one to work in Australia?
Bike-sharing: altruism or business?
There are two main types of the bike-sharing systems: docked and dockless. The former is easier for operators to manage—there’s a finite number of places where bikes can (or, at least, should) be—but less convenient for users, who have to return their bike to a docking station. The latter is great—once you’ve found a bike, that is, because the lack of stations can make it hard to know where to look for one. This is the flipside of the fact that you can just ride a bike to your destination and leave it there.
Keeping track of every individual bike can also be a nightmare for operators—a point amply illustrated by the very first bike-sharing scheme, which appeared in Amsterdam circa 1965. The scheme, such as it was, simply involved a bunch of free bicycles being left around the city for anyone to use. Sadly, the idea was too altruistic for its own good—in a denouement that today’s bike-scheme operators in Australia could probably have predicted, most of the bikes ended up in Amsterdam’s canals.
A major recent development has been the combination of e-scooters and dockless bike systems with the introduction of the electronic bike (e-bike). The e-bike offers the ease of riding with an electrical support system when you get tired of pedalling, while the advent of smartphones and app-based hiring systems makes it easier for operators to keep track of their property. The first wave of e-bikes arrived in Australia early last year, following successes in major capital cities across America and Europe.
They arrived just in time for the second major event to affect the bike-sharing economy: COVID-19.
The COVID cycling boom
While the pandemic that gripped the world in 2020 spelled bad news for pretty much everyone, the bike-share industry seemed like it should be a rare exception. The COVID cycling boom has been well-documented, and it’s not just media hype—Google reported significant increases in requests for cycling directions in its Maps application, bike shops reported large increases in sales figures, and people all around the world experienced the joy of whizzing along on a bike instead of sitting in a car.
So you’d think that if there was ever a time for bike-sharing programs to thrive, this would have been it. And so it has proven in many places: more and more cities have seen successful increases in cycling presence on roads through well-established systems. New York, for example, saw one of the most rapid changes to being bike-friendly with 28.6 mi (46 km) of new protected bike lanes installed in the city over the course of 2020. The city has pledged to bring this up to over 80 mi by the end of 2021, and with COVID continuing to turn people away from crowded subways and squished buses, it’s no wonder New York is becoming a global cycling leader.
What is the current environment for bike-sharing in Australia?
Sadly, the same thing can’t be said about Australia, where a huge hesitancy to embrace bike-share systems has persisted despite a biking boom during lockdown. While the average person had their finger primed on the Marketplace app to find a cheap second-hand bike at the peak of the pandemic, shared bike docks across Australia remained unused. This was especially the case in Brisbane, where the touch-heavy system for hiring CityCycle bikes failed to pass the COVID hygiene safety check, ultimately spelling the end for the company.
Bike-sharing has seen many companies laid to rest in Australia: CityCycle was the seventh to perish in 16 years. Whilst Adelaide Free Bikes was a government-funded enterprise, programs such as CityCycle are private enterprises with costs involved for the upkeep of bikes, docks and terminals. (In Brisbane, these associated costs were taken on by JCDecaux in return for an exclusive monopoly contract on inner city bike-share.)
As of February 2021, docked and dockless bike-share schemes continue to operate in Canberra, Adelaide and Perth. Airbike is the current market leader, with dockless operations in Adelaide and Canberra since 2018/19, while Urbi has been left as the country’s only docked bike-share program, with no other mobile transport competitors in Perth. Whether it will survive remains open to question: the system features a much higher price point than other bike-share systems ($40 a month, compared to $5 month for CityCycle). Meanwhile, Airbike operates on a per-minute rate: a $1.50 flagfall, then $0.60 for every ten minutes thereafter.
These systems all aim to eliminate something that proved another reason for CityCycle’s downfall: bulky stations and cumbersome docking procedures. Operating exclusively through app connectivity, in a manner similar to e-scooter providers, Urbi docks are streamlined to minimise user experience woes.
E-bikes and e-scooters have become the new normal for bike-share with Lime, Neuron and Beam all bringing their nerdily-named offerings to most capital cities—they’re in every capital but Canberra, Perth and Brisbane (until later this year). Adelaide is the current testing ground for whether e-bikes and dockless regular bikes can coexist. With e-scooters also prevalent in the city, it’s anyone’s guess whether the free market will serve diverse audiences or leave older offerings in the gutter.
Shared transport is not the new bitcoin just yet, but consumers are prepared to pay. E-bikes such as Neuron set you back $89 per month for an unlimited number of 90-minute rides per day. Otherwise, users can pay an initial fee of $1 before incurring $0.38 a minute, a shared price for both e- bike and e-scooter offerings in the case of most providers.
Despite their difference, bike-sharing services around Australia have been united by one phenomenon: the ongoing competition among users to find the most exotic place to dump their vehicle. There’s no doubt some measure of media sensationalisation around the reported rash of bikes turning up in trees and rivers, but there’s also a real problem here. In an in-depth analysis published on The Conversation in 2018, behavioural psychologist Conor Wynn attributes the phenomenon to a combination of social norms and a lack of injunctive norms. In plainer English, this means that other people are doing it and there’s no-one stopping you doing the same: “Everyone else seems to be doing it and there are only whispers telling us not to, so we should be right to ditch the bike at the end of a good night out.”
Wynn suggested various measures to combat the problem, including increasing the perceived value of the bike by requiring a deposit for hiring it and/or a fine for dumping it. Lime is relying on the implementation of additional GPS tracking in their bikes to stamp out the ubiquitous river throw: riders will now be alerted when they are demonstrating dangerous behaviour, and $15 fines or app bans will follow if this warning is not heeded.
Where to from here?
Any discussion of gold-standard biking cities usually also involves an accompanying statistic on dollars invested by that city’s government into encouraging cycling with bike lanes and/or other infrastructure. However, in Australia we are seeing a decline in cycling: according to a 2019 report from Austroads only 13.8% of the population are cycling, down from 15.5% in 2017. While COVID-19 saw pop-up bike paths gain traction in Australia as we all returned to exercise, these solutions didn’t all stick around. This lack of interest in investing in options like pop-up lanes points to the biggest hindrance for bike use in Australia: support from local governments.
“Australia [should be] perfect for bike-sharing and bikes,” says Dr Dorina Pojani, Senior Lecturer in Urban Planning at the University of Queensland. “It’s perfect weather here [in Brisbane] most of the year—it may get hot some months of the year, but this is far better for cycling than snow or ice. We have well-maintained cities with a population that is very interested in sports, the beach and being outdoorsy. We have wealthy municipalities with funding available if we really want to fix this issue. Australia would be perfect for cycling—if the political will was there.”
Whether the political will is there, however, remains very much open to question. While it seems that governments across the country are eager to pay lip service to cycling infrastructure, their actual policies can prove to be little more than window-dressing. For example, Brisbane Council’s set goal of over 1700 km of bikeways in the river city by 2031 sounds promising—but it turns out that the majority of projects involve renewing old pathways, along with a 12-month trial of new bikeways at only three major CBD intersections. Across the state, 89 km of new cycleways were introduced between 2017 and 2019. Compare this to the nearly 47 km of new bikeways installed in New York alone in 2020.
There are exceptions: in Victoria, mandatory bike-lane provisions have been pencilled in to policies around road and rail developments, and a promising 12 km of pop-up bike lanes have been made permanent during the pandemic—but these policies are outliers. On the whole, however, even as cycling rates have risen nationally, investment in pathway solutions has failed to keep up.
Without proper support, existing issues with rider/pedestrian safety will continue to plague our cities, while traffic and emissions will only get worse. And there’s no reason that things need to be this way. As Dr Pojani points out, “The way we organise our transport system points to a lot of other issues in our society.”
A future influx of private bike-share companies investing in Australia may lead to new infrastructure, as was the case for Adelaide in 2018. There, a show of interest from Chinese bike-share company Ofo showing interest pushed the government to invest an extra $1 m into developing better bikeways. However, falling cycling rates make it unclear whether similar scenarios are likely to unfold elsewhere—and, in any case, this raises the question of whether we should need to wait for foreign investment to drive development of our bike lanes. This question feels especially relevant because of the fact that it’s the state of (and/or lack of) those bike lanes that is one of the factors holding cycling back in Australia in the first place.
This feels like a pivotal time for Australian transport. With congestion in many cities starting to not only return to pre-pandemic levels, but exceed them, the “new normal” is starting to look an awful lot like the old one.
As more shared transport options compete for road space, infrastructure needs to be made the focus. Without a fundamental change in how governments treat cycling, there is little chance for new e-bikes to change anything.