Friday 6 March 2009

Velib, Barclay's London Bike Hire and other public shared bike schemes

I can't be the only person who thinks there is an awful lot of wishful thinking involved in the way that bike sharing schemes are reported. I think a bit of realism is needed about the capability of such schemes.

I recently heard on the BBC news that London is to get 6000 shared bikes by 2010 and that the most optimistic estimates of their use say they will each be used 10 times a day. That's 60000 cycle trips per day (and is somewhat optimistic based on the take up of other shared bike schemes. update: as it turned out, London's bikes are actually used about a quarter so often so all my estimates below are actually wildly optimistic compared with real life).

This may sound impressive, but the greater London area has around 8 million residents. In most places, people make an average of around 2.5 "trips" by all modes each day, so that's around 20 million trips per day in total. If we assume that the bike hire scheme really does reach the number of trips that its proponents say, this means it has a capacity to replace one in 400 trips. 0.3% of the total. And that's the best case if they complete the scheme.

i.e. on average these bikes will account for just 0.002 trips per person per day.

That's tiny. Barely a start, in fact. Where people really cycle they use their bikes an awful lot more than that. For example, here in Assen the population make just short of 1.2 bike trips per day (the population of 65000 make over 70000 trips, more than the total capacity of the London scheme). Up in Groningen that grows to 1.4 bike trips per day. The Dutch, who are only twice as numerous as Londoners, make more than 14 million trips per day by bike. London's estimate of 60000 trips per day may impressive, but it's not. It's more than two orders of magnitude short of what is required (2011 update: actual usage has been under a third of what was predicted, but the hype continues unchecked).

It's great to see anything which encourages people to cycle. However, this scheme can never genuinely result in a large cycle culture. It can only ever be a small part of the picture.

It seems to me that public cycle hire is being picked on by many cities largely because it's the smallest thing can be done which will make it look as if something is being done. No longer do you need to do anything complicated and expensive like re-arranging the streets to make them more suited for cycling, or risk alienating motorists as you do it. Just allow a company to set up doing bike hire and the world's press will be amazed by your achievement.

How are other schemes doing ?
It's much the same picture in other places where these schemes have been introduced, even if there are far more bikes per inhabitant than are planned for London:

Barcelona has a population of 1.6M and 6000 bikes. They claim each one is used 10 times a day, so that's enough for 1.8% of journeys.

The Paris metropolitan area has 12M people, and there are 20000 bikes. Maximum capacity of Velib is therefore 0.8% of the journeys. What's more, the system in Paris is in trouble.

To see successful policy you really can't look for inspiration to nations where virtually no-one cycles. The country to look to is the Netherlands, where there is the highest rate of cycling in the world.

The Netherlands also has a public bicycle scheme called OV-Fiets. I previously covered the amusing promotional videos for the scheme. This has a different emphasis specifically targeting people who need bikes at the ends of journeys on public transport. (i.e. Exactly the opposite emphasis as London) and it is growing in popularity very quickly. But here also OV-Fiets can only cope with a very small proportion of total journeys.

November 2009 update
Can you believe that every one of the 20000 bikes provided in the Velib scheme in Paris has had to be replaced in the first two years ?

In other news, a comparative study of Bike Share schemes around the world showed that none were proven to be effective at increasing modal share.

Update July 2010
Since this post was written, Ve-Lon was renamed and implemented as the "Barclays Cycle Hire" system. It is no more ambitious than ever, and will still not provide for more than a tiny fractional increase in cycling in London. The fact remains that London already had plenty of bikes, and plenty of people who would like to cycle. The lack of decent infrastructure stood in their way and still stands in their way.

Further updates
Actual figures for usage in London have turned out to be much lower than predicted while costs are higher than predicted . My remark above that 10 rides per day was optimistic has proven to be right. It's closer to three in reality.

A later report from London pointed out that there's been no meaningful shift from car to bike and that a large proportion of total users are people who already rode bicycles in London. They use the shared bikes as insurance against their own bikes being stolen.

Nevertheless, London has continued to hype the figures for the bike share scheme though usage has now dropped to just over 2 rides per bike per day. i.e. less than a quarter of the optimistic estimates.

Regardless of this less than stellar success, other countries have gone ahead with their own bike share schemes rather than looking to the world's leading cycling nation and copying policies and infrastructure with proven success at increasing cycling modal share.

London's "Superhighways" are another example of not doing remotely enough.

Would you like to see true mass cycling for yourself ? Come on one of our Cycling Holidays or a Cycling Study Tour.


anna said...

In Vienna we have our "Citybikes" since 2003 (and even an earlier version in 2002), but it never really worked out that well. I guess that's because we only have 60 stations (and 800 bikes) which is nothing compared to Paris or even Barcelona. But just today I read that they will expand the current system by one third. Surely that will help, but still not be enough. Plus, most bike lanes in Vienna are just crap. They are dangerous and in the summer too crowded because far to small. Most summer cyclists don't know how to use one way bike lanes and also ride on sidewalks, both of which I'm completely against. But well, I don't think that infrastructure itself would help so much. I really think that promotion is missing. Most people have a bad attitude towards cycling here. There should be some high politicians and other famous people who cycle in public. If they only tell other people to do so it just won't work..

A friend of Barcelona who actually started cycling because of BiCiNG there, already complained many times, that BCN doesn't have enough bike infrastructure and that there are problems because the city is not prepared for so many cyclists.

Miguel said...

I agree with your conclusions. These bike share programs are a silly promotion sold by companies like clearchannel. Cities would do much better for their citizens and their future by facilitating bicycle riding through better infrastructure including bike parking, more favorable traffic regulations for bikes, and more punitive measures for private vehicles.

It's nice for a town to have a bunch of bikes available for tourists to use but private bike shops can easily handle that need.

Anonymous said...

Stuttgart's system seems to work- they're expanding it at any rate. It'S based on the same principle as in Ansterdam, tat you arrive on public transport and then use the bike in the city, and it's very heavily used.

I'd say anything that gets more people cycling in the city is good because it makes it 'Normal' and increases pressure for infrastructure. That said, it could be used as a greenwash scheme.

David Hembrow said...

Miguel: I think it's fine to have lots of bike hire schemes, and I don't have anything against the way that these schemes work. However this is only a very small part of what is required.

Workbike: Sounds like Stuttgart are doing the right thing in making it work with PT. The Dutch system is not just in Amsterdam. It's already at over 170 different locations all around the country (including here in Assen), and they're now starting to install them at places where people need bikes other than at railway stations. e.g. in the industrial estate in Groningen.

Anonymous said...

One thing that will be important will be the provision of cycle parking spaces around London.

One poor example would be the Dutch embassy :)

David Hembrow said...

Martin: That's hilarious. The Dutch embassy ought to at least provide a good example. There is, after all, quite a lot of cycle parking over here.

If the hire scheme results in lots of cycle parking spaces that are not reserved just for the hire bikes then that could be helpful.

Anonymous said...

I was in Berlin in 2005, and I liked their public bike scheme. Seems to be fairly successful there too.

Anonymous said...

The embassy thing is probably a security thing. There are more embassies and consulates where one can't park in front of or near entrances.

David Hembrow said...

Son of Shaft: Unfortunately, as John Adams points out, the actual existance of any bicycle bombs, ever, is in doubt.

Most places where you can't park a bicycle for "security reasons" you can still park a car, or drive past with a van. Cars and vans can hide huge bombs and are a genuine security threat.

spiderleggreen said...

But everybody knows that cyclists are anarchists.

Anything that gets people on bikes can create pressure for infrastructure changes, when those riding start complaining about it.

Erik Sandblom said...

You make some good points but I think the bicycle sharing schemes make good use of one of the bicycle's many advantages: it's quick and easy to get started. Bicycles are inexpensive and just about anyone can hop on and ride.

This is too often forgotten, and it might be one reason why bicycle sharing gets so much press coverage. It's a quick fix which really can pay off handsomely in relation to the time and money expended.

Anonymous said...

I know it's been a year since you wrote this, but to be fair: *Greater* London has "8 million residents". I highly doubt that your estimate of "20 million trips per day in total" actually cover the area where the cycle hire scheme, at present, exists (an area smaller than Zone 1). Not everybody travels into the centre of town every day.

So, while I do like your blog, your numbers here are completely unfair.

Give the study here: a read. It looks like expansion is on the way if the early 6000 bikes are a success.

David Hembrow said...

Anonymous: You make a good point in that the area covered by the scheme is much smaller. However, this actually is yet another way in which the potential for the system is small. London has spent 140 million pounds on a scheme which can cater for only a tiny proportion of journeys in a limited area of the city.