One of the key themes of the Expo at Velo-City was public bike hire systems of a similar sort to that now implemented in London. There were 8 companies offering a variety of public hire bike systems including Bixi (providers of public hire bikes in London, Montreal and many other cities) and JC Decaux (providers of the system in Seville and Paris, amongst others). One couldn’t help but wonder that whilst this was no doubt a growth market, was there room for all of these companies?
The systems on offer were all broadly similar, although some offered some interesting distinctive features. In general bikes are hired via an electronic access system, which releases bikes to authenticated users from an automatic docking station. Bikes are returned to a similar automatic docking station which terminates the hire.
The most obvious problem with such a system is what happens when a user gets to their destination and finds a fully occupied docking station. In this situation the user will be unable to return their hire bicycle until they find another station with spare capacity. This is a bad situation - the user is unable to complete their journey at their chosen destination and potentially has to pay extra for the time taken to find a parking space.
This is a commonly occurring problem with these systems. No other form of public transport refuses to allow a user to disembark at their chosen stop and it somewhat defeats the object of the bicycle - a form of personal transport that grants the user the freedom to travel where they wish. As would be expected some companies are working hard to tackle this problem. Nextbike claimed to have implemented the ability to remotely ‘tether’ a bike to an already full docking station and complete the hire. The excess bike(s) at this station can then be redistributed around the system either by subsequent users or by the vans that seem to be a ubiquitous part of these systems.
All delegates at Velo-City were give free access to the city’s hire bikes, courtesy of JC Decaux, for the week and this gave a good chance for some testing. The bikes themselves were solidly built, heavy with integrated lights and hub brakes (these needed considerable advance notice should stopping be required) and were a fun way to get around a flat city. The process of hiring a bike was problematic and of the small sample of people I spoke to about it at least half had problems, in some cases preventing the hire from taking place at all. Problems have to be dealt with via a call centre, which in itself is a challenge to visitors with limited language skills. The system seemed considerably more difficult than the London system.
My final observation was one of human nature - if you give people free access to bikes they will keep them for the whole day without returning them. As systems like this depend on bikes constantly moving around the system this is a problem. There were literally hundreds of bikes locked up, out of use, outside of the conference centre each day. I don’t know how the commuters who normally depend on these bikes coped with this but it must have caused significant difficulties. The picture on above left is a panorama, divided into 3 rows, showing the hundreds of hire bikes chained to fences and unavailable to other users. The picture below is likely all that remained for paying customers.