melbourne bike share cycle
(Image: Getty)

The Age reports that Melbourne Bike Share (MBS) now costs $2 million per year and will terminate in December 2019 after nearly ten years operation. Each bike is only used once per day on average.

It was evident from the outset in 2010 that the scheme would be a white elephant, a prediction confirmed within months of MBS commencing. Yet successive governments from both sides of politics let it drag on and on.

Why did it fail? There’s a number of possible explanations:

  • Australia’s mandatory helmet law. Although free helmets were eventually readily available, the requirement to access a helmet imposes a barrier on casual users and tourists.
  • Low subjective safety. Melbourne’s busy city centre roads and lack of cycling-friendly infrastructure deters prospective riders, most of whom aren’t used to cycling in traffic.
  • Inadequate coverage/scale of the scheme. MBS covers a small geographical area with a much lower density of origins/destinations than pin-up schemes (e.g. Paris’ Vélib’ covers 90 square kilometres and New York’s Citi Bike covered 40 square kilometre on commencement). MBS started with 600 bikes and 50 stations whereas Citi Bike started operations with 6,000 bikes and 300 stations (it now has 13,000 bikes and nearly 800 stations).
  • A rich supply of alternative modes. The relatively small area covered by MBS is well serviced by trams and trains. Much of it is walkable. The (questionable) decision to abolish fares for CBD tram travel decreased the usefulness of MBS even further.
  • A tariff aimed at local users rather than visitors/tourists. The scheme was initially designed to encourage short public transport trips for Melburnians via a pricing structure that discouraged longer trips preferred by tourists.
  • Melburnians who’re comfortable riding in traffic tend to have their own bikes, which are often much lighter and have many more gears than MBS’s bikes. That’s partly because housing in Melbourne is large enough to accommodate a bike — e.g. even the so-called new city centre “dog box” apartments are around 45 square metre, compared to typical 25 square metre or smaller apartments in NY and Paris.

The key failing of MBS is it doesn’t address a significant mobility problem. If it covered the entire inner city — a five km radius from Town Hall — with a commensurate number of bikes and stations, it might’ve fared better.

Of course, a bigger scheme would cost much more, probably at least $50 million to set up and perhaps $5-10 million per annum to operate.

Even then success would be far from assured. The performance of Brisbane’s CitiCyle scheme, which also opened in 2010, is little better than MBS despite covering a larger area and having three times as many bikes and stations.

Melbourne’s busy roads and the uncaring, even hostile, attitude of some drivers is a huge barrier to attracting casual cyclists. It’s important to understand that bike share largely relies on travellers who aren’t used to cycling in traffic; they’re easily scared off.

My view is that subjective safety is a much bigger constraint on the success of bike share — and cycling more generally — in Australian cities than either the helmet law or the limited scope/scale of schemes. Even if MBS were exempted from the law and tripled in size, I still expect it would perform disappointingly.

There’s enormous variation in the level of usage across the circa 1000 cities with bike share schemes, yet virtually none of them require helmets. That suggests other factors have an important influence on patronage and that “success” isn’t automatic in every city.

Successive Victorian governments have poured at least $15 million down the drain on MBS. The Andrews government is right to (belatedly) plug the hole and redirect the money to useful purposes e.g. improving infrastructure for all cyclists. It’s easy to forget that even if MBS performed well, it would still only account for a tiny percentage of all cycling trips in Melbourne.

As is so often the case, the underlying problem is that MBS was driven by politics, not by a sound business case. It was always a marketing exercise; it’s greenwashing, plain and simple. The initial feasibility assessments were inadequate but any contrary findings would’ve been ignored anyway.

The time to think again about bike share in Melbourne is when infrastructure and regulation have been improved to a level where travellers instinctively feel safe riding in the city.

This article was originally published on Crikey blog The Urbanist.