China’s “Rainbow wars” are coming to the UK, as rival bike share firms set up operations: Ofo in Cambridge, Mobike in Manchester, and, just this week, Singapore’s Obike arrived in London. Pay attention because, if China is anything to go by, this is going to be big.
The “Uber for X” cliché is overused, but bears some comparison here. These are start ups with billion-dollar valuations and venture capital piling in, using smart phones and pervasive availability to make urban mobility cheap and convenient.
The bikes have no docking stations, you can leave them anywhere sensible. They have GPS so you can find them, and unlock them with your phone, and they’re cheap to ride. On the surface, this is just a slight variation on existing bike share schemes, but in practice it works out quite differently. No docking stations makes them noticeably more convenient and more reliable, and their sheer number will make them more available in far more places.
Their expansion is astonishing – in barely a year, 2m bikes have appeared on the streets of China’s main cities. At a stroke it’s changed cycling in China from a declining transport mode, for the old and poor, to a growing everyday activity for the urban young. And it’s done so without any public subsidy.
It’s not been without its problems. At popular spots like stations, huge number of bikes can pile up. I took the picture below in Shanghai recently, showing a huge field of Mobikes outside a station. Just a few weeks later the city government banned bike share from some streets.
It is only a matter of time before Manchester and London see similar complaints, and pressure for controls. It’s not often cities are offered such a large-scale, privately-funded investment in environmentally friendly transport. And it as a “last-mile” mode it will greatly extend the catchment of existing stations. There’s a lot to like here, so if we’re not to lose the benefits in the inevitable backlash, TfGM and TfL will need to plan to accommodate, not just control.
That means two things. The first is where to park Both Mobike and Obike ask users to park in designated cycle parking. But huge numbers of bikes take up a lot of space – far less than most modes, but still a lot.
Who is this space taken from? Traditionally bike parking takes space from pedestrians, but in city centres the pavements are full, and it’s time some car parking made way for cycles too.
When people start to complain about “piles” of bikes “dumped” on our streets, it’s worth taking a moment to notice how much space we current give to piles of cars dumped on our streets. In London’s West End, literally acres of the world’s most valuable land is devoted to storage for the 7 per cent of residents who own a car, or the 6 per cent of commuter who drive to work.
The other preparation needed to make the most of this is more protected cycle lanes, which Chinese cities have on most main roads. After years of just painting pictures of bikes on the road, transport planners are finally accepting that the only sure-fire way to get more people cycling is to provide physically separated lanes. Normal people don’t want to dress up in special clothes and do battle with the traffic: they want to cycle as casually and spontaneously as they would walk somewhere, which means a safe lane with no lorries or cars.
For bike share this is even more important, the whole point is to allow easy and casual use. Oily chains are hidden away, and lights come on automatically, so you can hop on wearing your suit or whatever, with as little thought or preparation as hopping in a cab. The users that Mobike and Obike need to attract to become truly mass-market will only join in when cycling infrastructure is safe enough for everyone.
One final catch – while this investment is privately funded, there could still be costs for the public sector. Any car parking removed to make way for cycles means a loss of revenue for the council. And the journeys themselves are as likely to be a mode shift from buses as from cars, so could reduce revenues supporting local services.
But to focus on this is to miss the bigger picture. We’re witnessing the sudden arrival of a whole new strand to our urban transport system. It’s cheap, fast, clean, healthy and space-efficient. Let’s make the most of it.
Barney Stringer is a director at regeneration consultancy Quod. This article was originally posted on his blog.