New York's fabulously successful Citi Bike scheme launched in May 2013

The Victorian Government announced earlier this week it’s looking to expand its ailing city centre bike share scheme to inner city suburbs like Fitzroy, Collingwood and Richmond.

It’s also hoping to follow the examples of New York and London and secure corporate sponsors to fund all or most of the cost of expanding and operating the scheme.

I confess I’m cynical about its real intentions, but if the Government is serious it should think long and hard about this proposition. So should any prospective sponsors and other Australian governments or municipalities (like Sydney) who’re contemplating bike share.

At first glance, expanding the geographical coverage of Melbourne Bike Share (MBS) and increasing the number of bike stations looks like a good idea.

The limited scale of MBS was a key problem from the outset. At present it has 550 bikes in 51 stations. It essentially covers only the city centre where walking and public transport already provide good options.

After more than three years of operation, MBS currently generates an average of just 0.5-0.7 rents per bike per day i.e. each bike is rented about once every two days.

In contrast, when it launched in May this year, New York’s conspicuously successful Citi Bike scheme had 6,000 bikes and 300 stations. Six months on, there are more than 40,000 hires on an average day.

Citi Bike is spread over a third of Manhattan (south of 59th St) and key parts of Brooklyn. That’s about 40 sq km, much the same area as covered by the entire City of Melbourne (municipality) and much larger than MBS’s area.

Expanding MBS to the rest of the City of Melbourne and neighbouring municipalities such as Yarra and Port Phillip should certainly make the scheme more attractive to users.

New York’s Citi Bike, though, cost a whopping $40-50 million to set up. Operating costs are in the order of $5 million p.a. Moreover, it’s funded entirely by sponsorship.

Given its lacklustre record, MBS would be lucky to attract any sponsorship, much less funding on this scale. Any expansion of  its geographical coverage would almost certainly have to be funded by government.

Would the benefits warrant public expenditure of this order?

Bike share has proven to be a fraught business in Australia (there’s also an ailing scheme in Brisbane). The mandatory helmet law would continue to be a major constraint on the ability of even an expanded scheme to generate significant growth in usage.

It’s true that CBD workers can keep a helmet at work, but the law rules out more spontaneous trips. Repealing the law would undoubtedly increase demand, but expecting the whole population of the state to do away with it for the sake of MBS would be a big and frankly unrealistic ask.

Irrespective of the law’s merits, the warrant for it should be assessed in terms of its impact on the much larger number of ordinary cyclists in the state, not on its impact on MBS.

The low level of subjective safety for any cyclist venturing on to the roads in the inner city would also continue to be a burden on an expanded scheme.

Australians drivers aren’t especially tolerant of cyclists and, notwithstanding some recent improvements, Melbourne’s CBD lacks the separated infrastructure that facilitates high levels of cycling in places like Amsterdam and Copenhagen.

The area serviced by Citi Bike is also considerably denser in terms of both jobs and residents than the inner suburbs of Melbourne; its population density is about the same as Paris’s (e.g. see Why does bike share work in New York but not in Australia?).

Unless a parallel and massive investment were also made in infrastructure to improve subjective safety, repeal of the helmet law might still only deliver a modest increase in usage of MBS (1).

And contrary to the accepted wisdom, the environmental and health benefits would almost certainly be insufficient to justify the cost of expansion. That would be true even if patronage were high.

Experience in other cities indicates bike share schemes are primarily a substitute for walking and public transport, not for driving. According to recent research, only 1% of users of the London and Washington bike share schemes “report leaving the car at home” (see Should the helmet law be repealed to save bikeshare?).

That doesn’t matter though because the key rationale for spending large sums of public money on bikeshare isn’t environmental; it’s transport. The purpose of bikeshare is to enhance mobility.

If MBS offered the same density of stations and geographical coverage as offered in New York it would undoubtedly improve mobility in inner Melbourne.

However it’s arguable if deficiencies in other modes are so large they warrant spending a very large sum on bikeshare ahead of other opportunities. There’s room for improvement (e.g in lateral trips) but the inner city already has by far the best public transport service in the metropolitan area.

In my view, the sort of public funding required to expand MBS’s coverage and significantly increase usage would be better spent in other ways, for example on improving infrastructure for all cyclists.

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  1. It can’t be assumed repeal of the mandatory helmet law is the silver bullet MBS has been waiting for. 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. Also, there are now more than 500 bike share schemes in the world; there are huge variations in patronage even though helmets are mandatory in only a handful. Factors like infrastructure, scheme design and cultural attitudes are important in determining how well schemes do.

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