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Th bike share scheme in Paris. Photo: David McSpadden / CC-BY-2.0
Th bike share scheme in Paris. Photo: David McSpadden / CC-BY-2.0

AucklandMay 9, 2018

Bike share could transform Auckland, but the current approach is a bit feeble

Th bike share scheme in Paris. Photo: David McSpadden / CC-BY-2.0
Th bike share scheme in Paris. Photo: David McSpadden / CC-BY-2.0

As we grapple with futuristic questions about driverless cars, mobility on demand, and end-to-end trips, is the two-wheeled answer right under our noses? Jolisa Gracewood and Sam Finnemore of Bike Auckland make the case

Faster than walking and peak hour driving, cheaper than a private car or a taxi or Zoomy or Uber, the bicycle joins the dots between public transport, work, and home. Add a battery and a motor and the hills disappear, making Auckland more like Amsterdam. It’s the dream machine.

But not everyone has a bike ready to go, or has their bike right there when they need it. And while everyday bike commuting is booming, especially along newly connected cycleways, not everyone wants or needs to make the whole journey on two wheels. That’s where bike share comes in.

Bike share, big city

Pedalled by people in suits and frocks, and parked in branded docks around downtown, sturdy rental bikes have become synonymous with some of the great cities they serve. New York is Citibike, Paris rolls en Vélib, and London pootles along on sturdy “Boris bikes” (which strictly should be called “Ken bikes” after the mayor whose idea they were, but that’s politics for you). As both an alternative and a supplement to fully-fledged public transport networks, bike share is becoming the emblem of a confident city that’s serious about sorting itself out.

So where’s ours?

Well, it’s not as simple as it looks: with fixed docking stations you need a high density of people and destinations for bike share to catch on, and it’s a financial challenge to roll it out at a scale that makes sense. And the arrival of “free-range” dockless systems has transformed the global bike share landscape very quickly, even catching NYC on the hop.

Auckland Transport had been working on a bike share business case for a few years, before announcing on 18 April that it would press pause thanks to “the success of commercial bike share schemes”. AT will now work with the council on licensing bike share operators “to deliver the best outcome for Auckland” – but they’re reserving the option to reboot plans for a publicly run scheme if the private sector doesn’t deliver the goods.

The rationale seems to be: let commercial operators assume the cost and risk of developing bike share, rather than ratepayers picking up the tab to arguably reinvent the wheel.

In any case, after several years of uncertainty and chequered progress, the field is now open to commercial operators. Firms such as NextBike and Adventure Capital (and a recent electric bike share consortium) have been keeping the flame burning while patiently waiting for the outcome of AT’s business case, and can now have a go. But they’ll be playing catch-up with a new arrival that has gotten off to a significant head start.

Who dares wins?

The obvious and acknowledged game-changer here is Onzo – the highly visible black-and-yellow town bikes dotted around Auckland’s CBD and surrounds (and sometimes quite a bit further afield).

The Onzo equation is simple: two wheels, one gear and one app-controlled electronic lock, all yours for 25 cents per quarter hour. Once your trip ends, you can leave the bike at any public bike rack (or anywhere else, it seems) for the next user, with no need to return to a ‘home base’ rental hub.

That’s an offer many people couldn’t pass up; within weeks of launching, Onzo had thousands of curious subscribers. Not all have stuck around, but as of last month, Onzo claims 13,000 active users and a grand total of 62,000 trips.

The first six months haven’t been without controversy. Apparently deciding it was better to apologise than ask for permission, Onzo literally launched overnight – to surprise and general confusion, and without a license to operate. This gamble paid off: AT announced that they’d work with Onzo to get them compliant, and a trial was authorised that ran through to February 2018.

With little publicity and just a simple app as the interface, Aucklanders had to figure it out on the fly. Fortunately, we’re fast learners: the Quay Street cycleway and Tamaki Drive quickly became Onzo home turf for tourists and locals enjoying a sunny interlude in town, or getting around town faster than they could on foot.

Just as in many overseas cities, dockless share bikes prompted creativity, for both good and for ill. Onzos wound up on rooftops, atop seaside walls and bus shelters, inside phone booths, and in other unlikely spots, all lovingly documented on social media.

Meanwhile, riders clamoured for more Onzos in more places (except up trees); so more bikes were ordered, and in March AT issued a three-month extension of the trial period.

How’s it working for ya, Auckland?

It’s common for dockless bike share operators to set up first and ask later, and the team behind Onzo have certainly stolen a march on other firms by getting more bikes into the city, faster. On the positive side, this is solid proof of concept: 62,000 trips that wouldn’t otherwise have happened is not to be sniffed at. The genie is truly out of the bottle.

A sunset ride on the waterfront, one of 62,000 rides that might not otherwise have happened. Pic via Bike Auckland

But although no other operator matches Onzo’s scale right now, it’s still an open question whether Onzo is the bike share service that Auckland deserves long-term – or the one it needs right now.

The yellow and black bikes have small wheels, tiny frames, and no gearing – and their lack of lights and reflectors originally put them at odds with the law, a problem now remedied at AT’s request. (Helmets are a puzzle: we hear Onzo has a surfeit at hand because they often go missing – but nobody knows where they go).

Despite being tested and found wanting by the roadie crowd, the clunky single-speed design doesn’t seem to have been a major barrier to uptake. Ride data shows most Onzos go on short flat trips within the CBD or suburban fringe – either just for fun, or as a useful alternative to public transport, Uber or Zoomy trips.

They’re also being spotted on busier roads where gears are definitely called for, and in neighbourhoods, and even on school commutes, opening up the possibility of more frequent casual cycling around the city as a whole.

From a user perspective, the commonest complaint is about the app – particularly when it comes to reporting bikes that have been damaged or “privatised” into basements and suburban garages. (Note: the operating agreement means you can call Council’s hotline 09 301 0101 to report Onzos abandoned in one place for more than seven days).

Distribution and availability of bikes are the other big hassles. Onzos tend to congregate in the city centre and are harder to find further out; and many sit idle in the burbs for hours or days before being returned to a busier area.

The current license requires the company to have a plan for spreading bikes around and removing any that are broken or left in inappropriate locations. But with a team of nine running a fleet of almost 2,000 bikes, they’ll be a struggle for them to keep up.

We know this because Bike Auckland gets daily messages from Onzo users who’ve struck an answerphone and full mailbox on the 0800 646 696 number, and get no joy when they try to make contact via the Facebook page. If the city is allowing private companies to supply what could have been a public service, surely Aucklanders deserve better attention to their user experience. At the very least, people should know exactly who to call if things go wrong. 

What next?

If Onzo remains in the game, other firms can either challenge them or look for niches the black and yellow bikes aren’t occupying. Rumours abound of bike share operators on the horizon offering better lights, bigger wheels, gearing and other mod-cons (even electric assist). And Onzo have hinted at refinements of their own in coming months.

A lot will hinge on just how actively AT keeps tabs on the sector, or whether the approach is to stay “hands off” until problems pop up. Given recent coverage of the downside of dockless share bikes (whether in Australia, China, or bike paradise Amsterdam), operators will need to win over the general public, rather than creating fresh frustration that gets taken out on bike share as a concept – or people on bikes more generally.

AT has told us they’re working with Council to keep the code of practice for dockless bike share (under which trial licenses are issued) up to date, and to make sure that it delivers service levels that justify their license  – for instance, bikes that are available where and when the public wants them.

That said, AT and Council’s expectations for bike share are still far from clear. A vision for the coverage, quality and capacity of bike share should be stated publicly, giving operators and the public alike transparency around the future of these services – and clarity on when and why the city might step in. There’ll also be lessons to learn from Christchurch, where the City Council is soon to announce a successful tender for public bike share – and where, significantly, the current docked scheme is not in the running.

Part of the furniture

It seems clear that bike share of some sort – perhaps of many sorts – is here to stay. AT tells us that ride data shared by Onzo, along with their own assessments, confirms that bike share can be a powerful part of Auckland’s future transport landscape, particularly for “short trips in the CBD and fringe including first and last leg journeys”.

This, of course, is what bike advocates been saying about bikes in general for a long time – they’re a brilliantly affordable way to leverage public transport investment, by providing car-free access to stations and terminals, and taking the pressure off the public transport system at its busiest points.

A truly congestion-free rapid transport network will be one that starts with bikeable neighbourhoods. And bikeable neighbourhoods will give kids independent travel options, creating a ‘school holiday effect’ on local roads every day. It’s what you might call a virtuous cycle – and bike share might just be the quantum leap that finally makes these truths unignorable.

But is Auckland equipped to meet the needs of commercial bike share – and the people using it – when it’s still hard to find a place to park a regular bike in most parts of the city, and we still don’t have safe routes to ride along?

Take bike parking. Initially Onzo requested users to park their steeds in public bike racks when they were finished with them. AT has since tweaked Onzo’s license to require that bikes are parked beside those racks, and not in them. If enforced, this will at least ease the pressure on Auckland’s scarce public bike parking – but it seem like an invitation for more Onzos to be dropped off willy-nilly. (Mind you, if you’re mad about Onzos on footpaths, wait till you hear about Audis).

Another option floated by AT is bike parking hubs at major public transport centres such as Britomart. Now there’s an idea – in fact, one that’s been suggested and promoted by Bike Auckland and others for the general benefit of people on bikes for decades. If bike share ensures that there is decent bike parking in the city that’s progress – for everyone. Especially given the tremendous space efficiency of two-wheeled park-and-rides compared to the other kind.

Field of dreams, fact of the matter

If you build it, they will come is a line frequently used by advocates for making cities more bike-friendly. Dockless bike share may turn out to be the flip side of that proposition. Yes, great bike paths magnetically attract people on bikes, just as a baseball diamond in a cornfield attracts ghostly players. But you could also leave a bat and ball on the front lawn – or a grab-and-go bike in a public place – and see what happens.

If you provide the gear, in other words, they will come.

Bike share then creates a new feedback loop between bike use and the demand for cycling infrastructure. This changes the conversation in interesting ways: when a bike is just a tool to get you where you’re going, you’re not a “cyclist”, any more than you’re a “car-ist” or a “bus-ist” … you’re just a person, on a bike.

By making hopping on a bike for shorter trips not just normal but simple, it seems certain that grab-and-go bikes – especially on shopping streets and around major activity hubs and attractions with with busy footpaths and streets – will help fuel calls for more safe, connected routes and quiet local streets. As advocates, that’s music to our ears.

Indeed, in a few short years, Auckland’s newly proposed big investment in active transport may look not ambitious after all. We’ll look back at AT’s bike network business case and – like Boris Johnson in London – wish we’d built more, faster, sooner.

And that’s the next giant challenge for the city, as more and more Aucklanders discover the power of the humble bike to help get us where we’re headed: Will you build it when (not if) – or even before – they come?

Bike Auckland is the non-profit organisation working for a better city for people on bikes. Join them at the Big Bike Debate, Thursday 31 May at MOTAT, a comedy battle to settle the question, ‘Does Auckland look better on a bike?’

Read more from the Spinoff Commute Week here.

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