Is Melbourne Bicycle Share all spin?

I hope I’m proven wrong but I can’t help feeling Melbourne Bicycle Share is much more about political spin than about transport.

The PR material indicates the scheme is pitched at short-distance and short-duration travellers “running an errand at lunch or going across town for a meeting or lecture”. It extends “your public transport options and makes the CBD more accessible than ever before”.

The big question to my mind is what exactly is the need that this scheme is filling? Or more precisely, what is the justification for the Government subsidy it requires?

The very idea of a CBD is that it is walkable and if the trip’s too far then travellers take public transport. In fact public transport in Melbourne’s CBD, where we have the choice of the city rail loop and a dense tram system, is pretty good by world standards. Quite simply, the CBD doesn’t need share bicycles for transport.

I can’t see a lot of sense, either, in spending public money to take off-peak passengers away from public transport – that’s the very time when the system has spare capacity and should earn extra revenue with minimal extra cost. And why subsidise walkers to ride instead?

I’m not in any event confident that Melbourne Bicycle Share is even going to work.

If it will appeal to anyone, it will be to committed users. Both the mandatory helmet requirement and the pricing structure favour subscribers who are prepared to keep a helmet at work and pay the $50 annual standing fee. The compulsory helmet, $300 security deposit and trip fees will deter casual users, for whom public transport will be as cheap or cheaper.

The accompanying graph shows the cumulative cost of the choices facing the casual user for a two hour trip. He or she faces a $2.50 flag fall for the first 30 minutes, which is marginally cheaper than a $2.70 City Saver fare but more than the $2.18 cost of a 10 trip City Saver. However a 2 hour zone 1 Metcard costs $3.70 and covers both the forward and return journeys. Two hours travel with Melbourne Bike Share costs $19.50.

Cumulative cost trips up to 2 hours

Those who use the scheme will be people committed enough to mix it with taxis and trams, to ride in a suit in summer, to ignore “helmet hair”, to pedal a very heavy (18kg!) behemoth up Bourke Street, and seek out a parking station to secure the bike in at the end of the trip. These people sound very similar to those who already commute on their own bicycles.

The scheme kicks off with just ten parking stations, mostly close to the Swanston and Elizabeth Street spines, so at least initially the choice of origins and destinations is very limited and in direct competition with trams. It’s planned there will eventually be 50 stations and 600 bikes, but if it doesn’t meet expectations these additional stations will no doubt be pruned severely.

The sustainability rationale for this project is pretty weak. To the extent they are used at all, these bicycles will be a substitute for trains, trams and walking, not cars. People who use taxis are time-poor so I think they are the least likely to use them.

I can’t see that Melbourne Bicycle Share has much potential for tourism, either. The bikes are too heavy, it costs $80 for 4 hours riding and tourists have to provide a use-once helmet. But if it were to be used primarily by tourists, why should it be subsidised by taxpayers?

Perhaps it will find a market with lunch time joggers who’ve destroyed their knees.

So we have a publicly funded scheme that addresses a need that doesn’t exist and is designed in a way that almost guarantees it will fail to attract large numbers of riders. All of that was obvious from the get-go, but of course it doesn’t matter because its real purpose is to give the impression of promoting sustainability. Its $5.5 million of spin (and you just know it will cost even more when the overly optimistic estimates of patronage, maintenance costs and losses from vandalism are found wanting).

21 Comments on “Is Melbourne Bicycle Share all spin?”

  1. Kenneth Moyle says:

    I do hope for the best for the Melbourne scheme. The Montreal system has been a runaway success, much to the surprise of many (including me).

    The biggest problem is going to the the helmet laws, I think – Bixi took on in Montreal based largely on spontaneous let’s-give-this-a-try trips.

  2. TomD says:

    Can’t help but agree and what a waste of valuable money!

  3. mike rubbo says:

    I can’t believe your calculation that the bikes will cost a tourist $80 for 4 hours. The pricing structure is surely similar to Montreal and no one is complaining about prices over there that I’ve heard of.
    Bike share is a wonderful thing and is spreading around the world. But nowhere else does it have the helmet albatross and this will be it’s killer, I fear because it takes all spontentaity from using the bike.

    What has been so great elsewhere is that people who would never have thought of riding in a city, are tempted to try and find, not only that they love it, but that it feels safer than they imagined. Thus the bikes have opened up riding to whole new publics.

    That cant happen with compulsory helmets. The best that can come out of Melbourne, is that rather than see it fail,when nowhere else has, authorities go for a helmet exemption for those riding sit-up bikes of this type.

    This will do two important things . One. Enable Bike share. Two. Move us to the sit up bike as the utility bike of choice just as it is in all the big biking countries. Mike Rubbo

    • Alan Davies says:

      Unfortunately, the $80 calculation is correct (actually it’s $79.50 – I rounded it up). For the casual user (e.g. tourist), there’s a $2.50 flagfall for the first 30 minutes, $2.00 for the next 30 minutes, $5.00 for the next 30 minutes, $10 for each 30 minute block thereafter. See here. Plus there’s a $300 security deposit.

      BTW you raise an important point on your blog which I hadn’t considered – are there enough bikes? If people don’t have confidence there’ll be a bike available for their return journey than they’ll be unlikely to use the bike in the first place.

  4. Michael says:

    Were any cyclists involved in commissioning or bidding for the scheme? Were any of the people responsible for making any decisions about it’s design cyclists? I doubt it will work also except perhaps during a public transport strike. The problem seems to be that few people with any power to influence anything to do with roads, parks or planning are regular riders.
    I wonder whether this white elephant will do more damage than good. Will the government be blamed if someone riding one of these bikes gets into an accident?

    • Alan Davies says:

      Good question, I can’t see any mention of liability or insurance issues on the site. I’d be very confident its been thought about and it shouldn’t be a show-stopper, but it would be useful to know how it’s addressed.

  5. Russell says:

    My first thought was similar to Michael’s – are riders insured? What if they run into some frail person, or scratch someone’s Porsche?

  6. Andrew(AJH) says:

    I couldn’t agree more with your post Alan, a doomed-to-fail project I’m afraid.

  7. Michael says:

    I’m sure the legal aspect is taken care of, I was thinking more in terms of the PR side. The federal government is probably not legally responsible for mishaps with the insulation scheme, but it has become a PR disaster for them. Facts and personal responsibility have little relevance in the Australian media. If an opportunity arises for the media to get mileage out of attacking the scheme they surely will. A smart strategy to make it a success would have been to get a media outlet involved. Then it would be a guaranteed success not matter how little it got used.

  8. Benno says:

    Stupid idea. Waste of money. 99% of people who it would appeal to would already own a bike and use it in the cbd. Buy a bike and then take it directly to your destination, not a lockup station out of your way.

  9. mike rubbo says:

    There is more magic in bike share than these comments credit Bixi was greeted sceptically by Montrealers but soon won over almost everyone. But then they began with 3000 bikes last summer, and when the love rush started, they added another 2000.

    For bike share it work, it has to be ubiquitous, everywhere. In Montreal, you can almost always see one docking station from another, about 300 m. a part they are.

    Being so numerous you can almost always find a bike and, just as importantly, you can leave it when you need to. Without the helmet hassle, many people do take the bikes for the free half hour. Bixis clocked up 3.5 million kms. last season of over a million rentals. As far as i can find out, the accident rate did not jump commensurately.

    Of course helmets are worn by choice, not law, in Montreal . It’s hard to see Melbourne risking the outlay and the number of bikes which would work, say 3000, with the helmet problem hanging over the scheme.

    I’m also surprised that Bixi would get mixed up in what could be a mess. They are selling so well around the world, why would they come to this party with so many unanswered questions?

  10. Alan Davies says:

    David Byrne (Talking Heads) on the bike sharing scheme in Paris

  11. […] almost certain to fail. Most attention has focussed on the compulsory helmet requirement but as I noted last week, this is a program that addresses a need that doesn’t exist and is designed in a way that will […]

  12. Ben says:

    Your $80 figure is pretty much irrelevant – in Montreal, no one uses these bikes for more than 30 minutes at a time, except for a few clueless tourists who havn’t read the signs properly. Therefore once you have paid your subscription (daily, monthly or yearly), all trips are free.

  13. hammer says:

    Alan, I have to disagree with your assumption that public transport in Melbourne is great by world standards. Melbourne is a city of size that does not have a metro. Trams limp along, not able to control traffic lights like every other tram network I’m aware of. It can take me over 10 minutes to tram-crawl the few blocks along Elizabeth St. A wait for a city-circle train can be 20 minutes.
    A share bike scheme is exactly what the city needs. I’d love to be able to zoom to the VIc Market at lunch time… something not doable at the moment. I would not have to worry about security for my own bike or where to park it (a huge issue in Melbourne). Shame about the helmet laws.

    Public bike hire schemes have not failed anywhere else that they’ve been introduced. In fact, they have changed transport culture in many cities (eg Barcelona, Paris) and been highly successful. Mike’s right about Montreal, look at their station map The helmet laws are the only factor I’m concerned about, and perhaps the fact that the scheme is managed by RACV who are sketchy about projected growth rates and generally a bit lack lustre on their public info.

    I simply do not understand other posters’ obsession with law suits. It’s frustrating to see people in this city so susceptible to the culture of fear nonsense.

  14. Alan Davies says:

    Metlink says a tram leaving Flinders St at 12.03pm arrives at LaTrobe St at 12.09pm. The tram leaving at 4.02pm arrives at 4.08pm and the 5.04pm arrives at 5.10pm. No doubt some days it will be slower but some days it might be a little faster. I imagine the timetabler’s art is really about averaging journey times (I pick the Swantston Street spine because that’s where most of the share stations are).

    Perhaps a Bixi would be a little faster on average,but I think the margins we’re talking about here don’t justify public expenditures that could otherwise be used to improve cycling infrastructure e.g. connecting the Darebin and Yarra trails.

  15. hammer says:

    Yet… there are only a couple of stations. The point is with a bike share bike you do not have to follow the well-worn routes. You should be able to go virtually point to point when more stations are rolled out. I still maintain the cost is low when you compare how that would translate to other forms of public transport. And bike paths too (how much did Albert St line-painting cost?).

    • Alan Davies says:

      Your link to Montreal is illuminating. Very dense coverage. According to Wiki, Montreal now has around 5,000 bikes and 400 stations. Melbourne is starting with 100 bikes and 10 stations and this is envisaged to expand ultimately to just 600 bikes and 50 stations!!!

      It would be useful to see an analysis of the various cities that have bike share schemes to see where it’s worked the best (and worse)and why. How important, for example, is a tradition of cycling, presence of trams, extensive segregated bike facilities, number of bikes and stations, etc?

  16. […] felt from the outset that the scheme was misconceived but hopefully the new bikes and more amenable Spring weather will give the scheme a fillip. But […]

  17. A good analysis of the situation I must say.

    I’ve come to a similar outcome although cover a few different issues in my analysis.

  18. […] Todd of Kyneton that Melbourne Bicycle Share is a winner and I never have (see my previous posts here, here and […]

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