To dock or not to dock? The lowdown on dockless bike-share schemes

A multitude of articles on dockless bike-sharing schemes has appeared in recent years, charting their sharp increase in popularity and, in some cases, their visually spectacular failures. Just why are dockless bikes currently having a heyday? And what are the best-practice-stokes on the dockless bike-sharing wheel?

The seeds of dockless bike-sharing schemes are considered to have been planted on the streets of Amsterdam in 1965, with the appearance of 50 ‘white bikes’ that floated about the city unlocked. This all seems quite quaint and romantic juxtaposed against the staggering statistics China has produced since introducing free-floating bikes in 2016: by the end of last year there were reports of between 16-20 million bikes belonging to bike-share schemes and some 130 million registered users. And then there’s the surprisingly captivating images of the country’s bike graveyards – a visual and physical testament to the miscalculations and mismanagements of bike-share implementation.

A fleeting trend or a step towards sustainable transport?
Despite the reports of nuisance and oversupply in China, parallels have already been drawn between its relatively recent introduction of dockless bikes and a reduction in car trips shorter than five kilometres. The World Health Organisation currently links around 4.2 million deaths to outdoor air pollution per year, with transport-generated pollution a significant and growing contributor. Swapping cars for bikes give rise to benefits such as reductions in traffic congestion, fuel usage and energy consumption, as well as lower greenhouse gas and CO2 emissions. Add to the mix cleverly-thought-out and affordably-priced bike-sharing schemes and cycling becomes a viable alternative or complement to public transport, filling gaps where routes and schedules fail commuters.

The ability of bikes to step in where public transport cannot is key to the success of bike-sharing, according to Valérie Sauter of Forum Bikesharing Switzerland, an independent competence center for bike-sharing-related topics. Sauter believes that mobility should be considered as a ‘service’ that draws upon several modes of transport, including share-bikes: “Bike-sharing is a transport system that allows commuters to cover ‘the last mile’ of their journey. It makes connections that are difficult with public transport possible, allows cities to be crossed quickly and provides an alternative to trips with a car or crowded public transport”. 

Still need convincing that bike-sharing commands serious market attention? Consider the significant investment Uber made in acquiring dockless bike-sharing company Jump in April 2017. While the exact amount Uber paid for Jump remains unconfirmed, a figure of USD 200 million is being widely circulated in the press. It’s interesting to note that Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, speaking at the time of their investment, commented that cars are to Uber what books are to Amazon.

Companies should work together with local authorities to create synergies and ‘co-design’ the bike-sharing schemes.

What’s behind this shift in gear?
If Amsterdam’s ‘white bikes’ first made an appearance in the mid-sixties, why is bike-sharing currently enjoying a significant surge in popularity? Dr Alexandros Nikitas, Senior Lecturer in Transport at the University of Huddersfield in the UK, links the current popularity of bike-sharing to a growing interest in the ‘share economy’ and increasing environmental concern. He believes initiatives such as bike-share schemes are often a first step on the road towards communities embracing sustainable travel behaviours: “Rebranding something as conventional as urban cycling in a way that embraces the notion of the shared resource economy is a powerful tool for policy-makers looking to promote active transportation. The very presence of a bike-sharing scheme could signal that a city is interested to host green transport initiatives and sustainable urban growth.”

That said, Dr Nikitas also points out that “bike-sharing, especially in its dockless form, is a not particularly expensive investment for companies with thorough, city-specific business plans, good safe-keeping and reasonable expansion strategies.” This is a modern business opportunity that’s been made possible by the the ‘internet of things’, high-speed internet and rising smart phone usage. Sabina Fratila, writer for Copenhagen-based bike share platform Donkey Republic, has dubbed 2017 the year “bike sharing went crazy”. Last year saw a wave of private investors get behind dockless bike-sharing operations, especially the style that free-float about cities like Amsterdam’s white bikes. According to Fratila: “Since the new wave of dockless bike-share startups is privately-funded and not subsidised by city municipalities, we all had to go out and acquire venture capital.”

But does sidestepping the need for government funding mean side-stepping the process of collaboration between operators and city-host officials? To succeed, Dr Nikitas believes bike-sharing operators should collaborate with city-host officials to prioritise long-term success over short-term profit. “Companies should work together with local authorities to create synergies and ‘co-design’ to some extent the bike-sharing schemes. Each scheme should be unique and be about the city’s specific transport needs,” Dr Nikitas said. “Monitoring and policing ‘agreements’ help. If local authorities provide some direct funding or invest on supporting bicycling infrastructure and bike-friendly policies then the scheme has increased chances to have a bright future.”

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