Melbourne Bicycle Share – how about some balance?

No, I don’t agree with Alan Todd of Kyneton that Melbourne Bicycle Share is a winner and I’ve never thought it would be (see my previous posts here, here and here).

His letter to The Age this morning (“Share the smarts”) contends that bike share schemes have taken off in more than 135 cities around the world. “In any city that values public health, combined with a sustainable solution to transport and congestion problems, they would have to be a winner”, he says.

He also wants to see the compulsory helmet laws repealed so that Melbourne Bicycle Share can flourish.

I think the discussion around the Bixis is very confused. Too many people are mistaking policy on Bixis for policy on cycling. They’re very different – one’s a political stunt, the others real life.

Contrary to Mr Todd’s claim, Bixis won’t do anything whatsoever to reduce congestion even if their numbers are expanded. They are a substitute for walking and public transport in the CBD and near-CBD, not for cars. The sort of person who’s going to cycle at lunch time from Spring St to Melbourne Uni is not generally the sort of person who would otherwise drive.

Nor will they do anything about increasing the mode share of bicycles at the expense of cars on the journey from home to work and back again. They’re for short local city centre trips when you don’t want to walk or take a tram. People who pedal to work have their own bicycles – and they’re almost always better suited to the task, having more gears and being considerably cheaper and lighter than the Bixis.

And anyone who relies on a Bixi for health and fitness isn’t really serious. Those who are will commute by bicycle. Bixis are about riding to a meeting in a suit – they’re not about getting hot and sweaty.

Mr Todd points to successful bike sharing schemes in other cities. Our modest fleet of 600 Bixis costs $5.5 million. If I assume there are some economies of scale, we could have 5,000 like Montreal for (say) $40 million.

No thanks. I’d rather see that sort of money spent on facilities and infrastructure for real cycling – like encouraging kids to cycle to school and their parents to cycle to work. Or trying to encourage the 82% of Melburnians who don’t work in the city centre to take up cycling as a regular and serious form of exercise (as well as the large number of Melburnians who aren’t in the workforce).

But what I find really, seriously worrying is the idea that we should make a decision as far-reaching as abolishing compulsory helmet laws just so we can promote Bixis. As it happens I lean slightly toward an anti-compulsory view but I appreciate it’s a complex and extremely important issue. I don’t see the fate of Melbourne Bicycle Share as an important part of that decision. Unlike Mr Todd I respect Bicycle Victoria’s stand on this matter even if I don’t entirely agree with it.

The Bixis are really just a side show when it comes to what’s important about bicycle policy. They’re a lightweight bit of spin that was concocted to excite civic pride and push a few green buttons. Anyone can be serious about bicycles without being a dupe about Melbourne Bicycle Share.

Given that the money’s already been spent I don’t wish the scheme any ill will. But please, no more money for Melbourne Bicycle Share and no more conflating it with the helmet debate. Spend the money and political capital on something real (visionary, even!).

11 Comments on “Melbourne Bicycle Share – how about some balance?”

  1. Matthew says:

    I do agree with Alan Todd of Kyneton. I would like to see the scheme expanded out from the CBD into the suburbs and into country towns. I also think the costs of the bikes and running the scheme could and should come down with the economy of scale, and I think it should be funded through user pays. I would be happy to pay for the first half hour, rather than it being free. I would like to see every suburban station have docking stations (and also casual-hire bike lockers working off the same smartcard as the hire scheme. So I guess myKi would be good.) Once there is a larger cultural shift for the last mile problem onto bikes we can get rid of a lot of the inefficient near empty buses. Then public transport investment can be concentrated on the trains and make them as high frequency and good quality as possible.

    So ride your own bike to the station, putting the bike into secure storage. Wait no more than 5 minutes for a train, and use the bike share bikes at the other end (on roadspace taken from cars and given to bikes). All on the same smartcard. The secure storage could recharge my bike’s batteries, and electric bike bike shares are within the realms of probability.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Well I agree with you (although I can’t see how Alan Todd of Kyneton is saying the same as you are in his letter)!! Great idea. A whole-of-metropolis bike share scheme that’s based around stations and other key nodes. I’d put the CBD as the last priority, though, because its got pretty good tram access. I’d put the initial focus on inner city and suburban activity centres e.g. St Kilda.

      Also, this is a different beast. You’d probably want a different tariff at suburban stations. So If I train from the city to Monash and want to visit the Uni, CSIRO and maybe a couple of businesses out that way, I’d want a bike for a few hours at least, maybe for the day.

  2. Michael says:

    Another good article. I don’t think cycling is being taken seriously as a form of commuting. Councils continue to demonstrate that they can’t distinguish between the needs of commuter cyclists and recreational cyclists. Yarra council seems to be taking one step forward and two steps back when it comes to dealing with commuter cycling infrastructure and I have almost no confidence that even with the best of intentions they won’t make the experience of cycling into the city worse than it is at present.

    They are currently trying to get cyclists to stop riding through Rushall station. Bicycle Victoria have measured the frequency of morning cyclists passing through the station at 300 or so. So what do they do? Spend a fortune building the expedient Koonda Lat Bridge no one wants to use and then stick a “cyclists dismount, narrow bridge” at the bridge over Merri creek at Rushall station. They obviously think cyclists are out for a morning meander and think nothing of cycling a km out of their way and carrying their bikes down steps.

    A simple way to improve cycling in the inner city would be to get rid of all the blue stone along the road edges and corners.

  3. Alan Davies says:

    NOTE: I’ve detected and corrected an error. The $5.5 million cost of Melbourne Bike Share is for 600 bikes, not 100 bikes as I originally wrote (that was the number of bikes it launched with).

  4. Mike Rubbo says:

    I don’t agree with you Alan, at all.

    Here’s why Bixis and Mixis are worth the money.
    Good result No. one. Friends report to me from Montreal that Bixis there have changed the perception of cycling in that city, that many more people now ride bikes, their own bikes as well, because of the scheme.

    I lived in Montreal for 25 years, and never thought it as particularly bike friendly (I left in 96) Now, on some scales, it ranks as 5th. in the world in bike friendliness. That can be credited in part to Bixi. Bicing in Barcelona, have transform that city too. I’ve just received footage from their on the scheme which I’m about to cut.

    Good result No. 2. It’s hard to dispute that extensive utility bike use, such as you see in many European cities, is intimately linked with sit-up bikes with chain guards, carriers etc. Because our cycle culture has been so sport oriented, we’ve disparaged such bikes.

    Most occasional riders here have a flat bar in the garage that they don’t use much because it’s too uncomfortable leaning forward, and just they don’t know there’s another way to ride.

    Bike share schemes, being universally sit-up bikes, introduce people to a much more comfortable way to ride. This seen in the dramatic shift in sales to these bikes in Bike share cities.

    Good result no. three. Barcelona bike planners report that they had a lot of rouble funding bike-ways before Bicing. Those that were built, raised lots of opposition, like now is happening in Sydney to Clover Moore’s efforts. With Bicing, all that changed and much more money has been freed up for bike infrastructure, backed by the new lobby group of bicing users.

    Good result no. four. Cycling here is surrounded with an aura of danger to which helmets contribute. It’s dramatic to stand on Canning st. in the morning and see, also, the number of iridescent vests which flash past, another signal that cycling is dangerous

    Bixi’s press officer tells me that in their first season, (2009) Bixi bikes clocked up 3.5 million kms. and that this involved only 5 accidents, none serious.

    How much value to do you put on giving the lie to the idea that cycling, and without a helmet moreover, since most Bixi riders don’t wear them, is not nearly as dangerous at it’s made out to be? To me, this is inestimable.

    So, I am all for a helmet exemption for these bikes in order to save the Melb. scheme. Such an exemption would also serve as test of the necessity of our laws.


    • Alan Davies says:

      Mike, if Melbourne Bicycle Share turns out to be an effective way of “marketing” cycling to a broader audience then that would be a great outcome. Whether it will is completely unknown at this stage.

      Also, whether it is the only way or the best way of selling the advantages and benefits of cycling to Melburnians is a moot point. Putting the same effort into a school cycling program might have a better long term outcome. Or paying Neighbours $100,000 to “regularise” sit-up bikes might achieve more at lower cost.

      I’m just saying that measured on its own terms, it’s a project of doubtful value.

    • psunter says:

      Good comment Mike. Is the value of the scheme promoting a ‘step change’ in how we perceive cycling?

      A question in terms of an exemption is the existing level of safety for cyclists in the city … if it’s already better than state averages, this might lend weight to the proposal.

  5. Michael says:

    “Cycling here is surrounded with an aura of danger to which helmets contribute. It’s dramatic to stand on Canning st. in the morning and see, also, the number of iridescent vests which flash past, another signal that cycling is dangerous”

    The reality is that cycling in Melbourne is dangerous. I have at least a couple of incidents a week where I have to take evasive action because drivers don’t look for bikes or misjudge the speed I’m travelling and pull out in front of me. There simply isn’t enough cyclists to make motorists take account of bikes. I hope you are right and bixis make cycling more popular, but in the back of my mind I suspect it has been set up to fail, not that the RACV would ever want cycling to be less popular than it already is.

  6. nick bastow says:

    Alan – as someone who rides into the CBD I – agree with you about the policy confusion. The other thing that I thing this scheme distracts us from is that the CBD is not actually a great place to ride around. Even as a reasonably experienced cyclist – I think Swanston Street is pretty scary and trying to go from west to east up Collins or Flinders is not much better. I think we’d be better off trying to fix up transit routes within the CBD for bikes [like for example using the “Little” streets more creatively] and then encouraging people to use their own bikes in the city.

  7. Kat says:

    One huge advantage to someone like me who lives in the inner city of his bike scheme is that I simply can’t have my own bike. It won’t fit in my apartment and there is nowhere safe to keep it outside, I tried and bikes got stolen. This scheme means I can ride more-or-less from home to work and to other things in the city. I would like to see it expanded to more inner suburbs as well.

  8. […] argued before that Melbourne Bicycle Share is a solution looking for a problem. It’s a political exercise, of […]

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