New York’s commercially financed new bike-share scheme, Citi Bike, isn’t even a week old but already it’s obvious, notwithstanding some criticism, that it’s taken the Big Apple by storm.

After just five days, it had recorded an average of 8105 trips per day and enrolled 25,276 annual members. It looks set to join other conspicuously successful bike-share schemes like those in Paris, Barcelona, London, Dublin, Montreal, Washington DC and Minneapolis.

The apparent overnight success of Citi Bike highlights the disastrous experience with bike share in Australia. Melbourne Bike Share had just 253 hires in its first week of operation in May 2010. After six months, even with the introduction of a subsidy for helmets, usage rose to 183 hires per day and memberships reached 650. It’s now up to around one daily hire per bike, i.e. on average each bike gets used for about 20 minutes a day.

The performance of Brisbane’s CitiCyle scheme, which also opened in 2010, is even worse. Despite having three times as many bikes and stations as Melbourne Bike Share, average usage languishes at around 0.4 daily hires per bike.

Why do schemes in other countries appear to perform so much better than Melbourne’s or Brisbane’s? That’s hard to answer definitively because getting reliable and comparable usage data is very hard. Nor have any researchers undertaken yet the sort of sophisticated multiple regression analysis that would be required to explore the question properly.

The seemingly obvious answer is that Australia has the only bike-share schemes that mandate and enforce helmets. If prospective riders have to find a clean helmet even before they can hire a bike, that’s got to be a serious dampener on demand. While the helmet law is undoubtedly an important factor in the poor performance of bike share in Australia, it’s unlikely it’s the only reason. In fact it might not even be the most important one.

As of 2011, there were over 300 bikeshare schemes throughout the world. Other than Melbourne and Brisbane, none mandate use of a helmet. Yet there is considerable variation between them in terms of usage. For example, although the Dublin scheme has fewer bicycles than the Goteborg scheme, usage is 10 times higher. Something other than helmets must account for the difference.

This reflects the pattern for cycling in general, too. As noted here, cycling rates differ significantly between countries that don’t have Australia’s strict helmet laws. For example, bicycle use in the Netherlands is nine times higher than it is in France and Italy and more than twice as high as it is in Germany. Those differences have nothing to do with helmet laws.

Nor does helmet policy explain why bicycles capture 34% of trips in Munster, but only 13% in Munich. Or why the corresponding figure for Groningen is 37% compared to 10% in Heerlen; or 20% in Bruges but 5% in Brussels; or 19% in Salzburg but 3% in Wien.

Repeal of the helmet law would undoubtedly lead to increased demand for bike share in Australian cities, but usage might still be lacklustre relative to other schemes. It might still be insufficient to generate benefits that exceed the publicly-funded costs.

That’s because there are other factors at play. They include differences in:

  • density of bikes and stations;
  • density of population, employment, education and activities;
  • pricing, access, operating hours and marketing;
  • cycling-specific infrastructure and regulation of vehicles;
  • car ownership level
  • the demography of the population;
  • historical cycling culture;
  • level of public transport supply; and
  • climate and topography.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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