Great idea… poor execution

http://www.cooltownstudios.com/images/barcelona-bikesharing.jpgIt’s hard to see how something like the “free” bike scheme being launched in Melbourne is going to be at all successful.

A report in The Age tells us that “users will pay a membership fee – $2.50 a day or up to $50 a year…” But, and here’s the killer, if a bike isn’t returned within half an hour, then people will be penalised heavily ($20 after two hours, and $370 after 10 hours). Add to this, the requirement for people to bring their own helmets, the danger of riding bikes in a very un-bike-friendly city, and the need to pre-register, as a marketer, I can see that in its current form, in this particular market, it is doomed to fail.

It’s the same flawed thinking that built the Southern Star Observation Wheel – “they’ve got them in European cities, so why wouldn’t it work in Melbourne?”

It won’t work, at least in its current form, because Melbourne is a city that is still focused on the car as the most important form of transport, because it requires too much effort and planning on the part of the potential rider, and because it’s too bloody dangerous to ride bikes in the Melbourne CBD at present (as a note, its pretty bloody dangerous to ride bikes in places like Barcelona, too, but the public seem to be okay about this).

I don’t know what goes on in the minds of these government advisers, but they certainly don’t understand human behaviour. Certainly the feasibility study does not leave one with a sense of optimism about its success.

I can see what they are attempting to do – create a culture of short trips, so that locals jump on a bike, ride it a short distance, and then park it at another stand. But as the feasibility study says about other schemes, demand at certain times often outstrips supply, while at other times, the bikes remain unused. Similarly, at present only a small number of people live in the city – it is growing, but are they bike riding types? I just can’t imagine my friends who live in William Street, jumping on a bike to go to the footy at Docklands (but I am happy to be proved wrong).

It’s also hard to see the benefits, when the study also says that it reduces car usage by less than one per cent, and emissions by 0.1 per cent. It may create a culture of bike-riding in the city, as the feasibility study says, but the culture is already there (because the public transport system is so over-crowded), it is infrastructure that lets potential riders down. The only really bike friendly part of the CBD is the route between RMIT and Melbourne Uni, where bikes are protected from cars through the construction of their own lanes.

One of the few successes, the bicing program in Barcelona works partly because there are car bans, speed limits of 30kph, and lots of pedestrian traffic in the areas where the bikes are popular, such as the Plaça de Catalunya. It also works because large numbers of people live in a small area, because the city has been transformed around the program, because the bikes are well maintained, and because the city pays a large proportion of the costs of the program (as opposed to a belief that advertising revenue will cover costs, or that the program can be self-sustaining, or even profitable).

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My solution would be start small (10 – 15 locations), stick with the scheme for at least five years, maintain the bikes, make safe bike paths in the city, allow people to have the bike up to two hours for free (or charge a small fee up to two hours), somehow deal with the helmet issue (that’s a bit harder – I wouldn’t want to use a shared helmet), reduce the number of cars in the city, and not expect to make money (directly) from the scheme.

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