Is bike share a great fit for mature bike cities ?

Last week we wrote about the demise of the Copenhagen bike share system and the fact that the City cancelled the long-awaited replacement system. Generally, we are always in agreement with Lars Barfred, our regular columnist, on almost all issues. He has, however, a different view of a bike share system for Copenhagen. We’re happy to publish his side of the story.

The girl in the olive drab jacket on the second generation bike-share bike -Picture: Gobike

Is Bike Sharing a Universal Good?

by Lars Barfred

Many cities has been praised over the past five years for their new bike share systems. The original Copenhagen system was the pioneer for for this urban planning craze.

The Danish system was, in most peoples’ eyes, outdated but as soon as the  The Traffic and Environment Mayor announced that the City would be indefinitely postponing the planned replacement scheme, EVERYBODY – even right-wing politicians who tried to bury the system for years -  were quick to proclaim the sudden death of Copenhagen as a bicycle city. Apparently a bike share scheme is now mandatory, where I thought it was all about great bike infrastructure and high bike ownership.

I actually applauded the decision to abandon this runaway train called the new bikeshare system. The system was to be rolled out into many municipalities. The Copenhagen share alone was 114 million kroner ($19.5 million USD), which is equal to the budget for one and half years of building bicycle infrastructure. The latter would benefit hundreds of thousands of users on a daily basis, whereas the bike share system would cover only 2000 bikes.

The system was (or is, as I will come back to), designed to be the most advanced system on the planet with, for example, GPS tracking to locate the nearest available bike on a smartphone app. I agree that such specs sound nifty.

The system is free floating – at least as long as there are spots available to return the bike to nearby, otherwise you are stuck on the bike, and paying for it until you can return it. You were also supposed to be able to reserve a bike in advance.

This is really the first time I have heard about a free floating vehicular system where you can reserve a vehicle in advance. This is quite tricky to operate, as you don’t know where the bikes are in advance and the users have no obligation to return the bike in a specific place.

I predict that this system is the next in a long line of Danish infrastructure projects overshadowed by the Danish minority complex. When we buy new trains (IC4, IC3  & IC2), mini-metro systems, public transit ticketing systems (Rejsekortet) and so on. 

We always indulge ourselves in how advanced and unique we are, and can never settle for an off-the-shelf system, which is immensely stupid. We have to depreciate the system cost on an infinitely small base and suppliers are impossible to handle, as the system spec is always incomplete. We are asking for something that we or the suppliers have no track record of providing or operating.

Such an approach also gurantees we have no local, experienced competences. There is no one in Denmark who has experience with handling a free floating system, let alone a free floating system integrated with a reservation option.

Financing is also questionable  according to city documents operating cost per bike per year is estimated to be USD 4-6.000 annually. Thats USD per trip 4,50, if the Copenhagen system will average 3 trips a day, as is the actual case in the Netherlands. Copenhagen estimates 6 trips per day, but that number is based on the british assumptions of their system, prior to going into operation.

Half hour trips are supposed to be free, and assuming two out of three trips are for free, a trip must return USD 13,50 in revenue. I even think 1 in 3 is overly optimistic to be paid trips, the bike is meant as a commuter bike, trips of more than half an hour don´t exist, unless you use your own bike.

At 3 trips a day, and lets say they are made on average by two people, the bike system will benefit 4.000 citizens a day, whereas general bike infrarstructure benefit 300.000 daily. Using 1.5 times as much on bike share annually, as on alle other bike infrastructure, just seems a tiny bit out of proportion.

The Danish bicycle user will as well, once again, suffer from the lack of willingness to pay the cost of current bike infrastructure demand. In the Netherlands, or our neighbour Malmö, Sweden, public transit stations are well equipped to allow for reasonable bike parking. The Danish ones are not.

Danish State Railways (DSB) are a partner in the new bike share system and they own the space around the stations where a major share and the most attractively-placed of the current (all too few) bike racks will be removed, in favour of the new bike share scheme.

The DSB Marketing Director, Niklas Marschall, plainly stated at a conference in 2011 that they know it will be a problem with insufficient bike racks at stations. They know it will be a problem removing bike racks, and that they are relying on somebody else to solve that because they could not accept responsibility of proper bike parking at train stations.

This irresponsible hands-off approach to further integrating cycling and public transit was again evidenced when the largest transit hub in Denmark, Nørreport in the heart of Copenhagen, was scheduled for renovation.

A huge, subterranean parking facility for thousands of bikes was designed but neither DSB nor the city wanted to pick up the bill so it was scratched completely. Although bike parking was chaotic before, all responsible parties have shown no interest in resolving the chaos which, during the renovation, dominates all the surrounding streets. And it will return to the new area when the renovation is completed.

The chaotic bike parking around the biggest transit hub in Denmark, Nørreport.  The station is now being renovated, when the new plaza is reopend, the chaos will increase, as a lot of the space allocated for private bikes will
now benefit bike-share bikes in stead -Pictures; Lars Barfred 

If we want commuters to use bikes and mass transit, we owe them acceptable bike parking facilities. Picture Lars Barfred

Another aspect of bikeshare is that most celebrated bike share schemes are successful in cities with very low modal share and bike ownership. The initial Copenhagen bike share was for tourists, which made sense, as an easy, fun and free alternative to renting a real bike. It was never meant for commuters, as almost all Danes own a bike and, if they don’t, chances are they are not really going to use one because they probably revel in the “freedom” of their status-car.

I would welcome any evidence that bike-share programs reduce car dependency in mature bicycle cultures. I worked for Coca-Cola for many years, for better or for worse, but it has a well-calibrated marketing machine and we NEVER sought inspiration, best practise sharing or consumer insights from less developed markets. Why should this be different for marketing bike usage?

As I started out by saying, everybody screamed out loud that without a bikeshare we will lose the international renown as a bike city. participated in the outcry as well, although with some of the more balanced comments. 

I seriously doubt, however, that the fame came from bikeshare but rather from:

·      - Our high modal share despite our climate

·      - The sustained effort for better bike infrastructure from the early 1970s to mid-2000′s

·      - The COP15 summit, where the global leadership was exposed to our high modal share in wintertime which was, for many, unfathomable and clearly a part of the solution.

·      - Previously very high taxes on cars (gradually removed since 1990)

·      - The relatively high level of good bike infrastructure in the city

- The retrofitting of Nørrebrogade – from ordinary street to bus/bike (+cars) street, with an internationally-renowed high volume of bikes
I can happily mention the latter two because I’m not remunerated in any way for writing here on this blog, nor did I have anything to do with starting or popularizing the sites. And I will highlight these sites as the primary reason that Copenhagen is stealing Dutch thunder – the Dutch deserve the accolade much more!

You cannot make a city a leading bike city by buying a state-of-the-art bike share program with 1200 bikes. You won’t visit a great bike city and leave with the impression that it WAS a great bike city simply because of the bike share program.

So, I should be happy that the program was postponed indefinitely, right?

Wrong. The politicians are not scared that modal share for bicycles has fallen to 2003/2004 levels and they’re not scared about increased car ownership, increased pollution, the lack of ideas for meeting EU air pollution norms or their own noise reduction targets. 

They ARE, however, scared of losing the magical mojo from our bicycle fame. Soooo… after only a few days of media coverage, they have succumbed to the pressure and have now declared that Copenhagen will participate in the launch of a new bike share system in 2013.

(Note: DSB said that the City of Copenhagen would recieve a massive discount for a one-year pilot participation and that it would only cost the City 1.5 million kroner $257,000 USD. After that first year, the City will decide if it will continue.)

The Danish Cyclists Federation (DCF) was quick to announce that anything else would be stupid – and now Copenhagen can credibly market itself as one of the leading international bike cities. They don’t have a clue…

The tablet pc of the new Bike share system, flashy, but will it make any motorist leave his car at home? Picture: Gobike

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