Do the economics of bike-sharing schemes stack up?

O Bike in Sydney. Image: Getty.

Have you ever walked past (or tripped over) a shared bike and wondered how it’s possible for the business to survive with a ride costing so little?

While bike-share schemes attract controversy in some places, the economic models behind such schemes actually have more to do with data mining, advertising and turning a profit from interest on the deposits than from the bike rental itself.

The most recent example in my own part of the world is Obikes. Launched in Australia in mid-June, there are currently over 1,250 dock-less Obikes in Melbourne and over 1,000 in Sydney. According to its marketing director, Obike’s Australian user numbers have increased rapidly since its introduction.

However, despite the promise of cheap and convenient access to bikes, Obikes have faced a number of challenges since their very first few weeks of operation. There have been complaints about Obikes clogging footpaths and becoming hazards as a result of people failing to park them within designated spaces, as well as complaints about Obikes hogging existing parking racks, leaving inadequate space for commuter cyclists to park their own bikes.

The massive potential for bike share schemes expansion

In theory, there are plenty of possible ways to make a profit from the shared-bike business. Its lucrative business models have proved attractive to entrepreneurs and investors.


The ride-and-pay model is the most straightforward profit-generating operation - but only one method of making the schemes profitable. For example, a half-hour ride of an Obike will cost the user A$1.99. If a bike is used for 10 half-hour trips per day, the total daily return will be A$19.9. A three-month operation could collect A$1,791. This will cover the initial investment made on the bikes, as well as some operational costs such as lost bikes and repairs - depending on the frequency of bike usage per day.

Bike-share schemes can also cash in on the deposits they require from users. The majority of schemes require users to register and pay a refundable security deposit to use the shared bikes (Obike asks for a deposit of A$69). Collectively, the amount of money held in the deposit pool is potentially enormous.

One Chinese bike-share company, Mobike, reportedly had over 100m registered users in June this year. The Mobike deposit account therefore held over 30bn yuan (about A$6bn) paid by the 100m users at 299 yuan per user. The interest earned from this sum alone is a huge income-generating asset, not to mention the scope to invest this money while it’s held in company coffers.

Data services present another significant potential income stream. The user database is huge – more than 100m trackable users in the case of Mobike. This can be used for marketing and the analysis of consumer behaviour if combined with other data sets.

Users’ riding behaviour data, captured by apps and GPS, complement very well the data sets collected from taxi and public transport systems by focusing on smaller areas. This data has a high commercial value to businesses in retail, restaurants and even car sales, as well as to local governments seeking more detailed information for urban planning and management applications.

Advertising is another means to generate profit by using both the physical body of the bikes to advertise as well as the app used to locate and unlock the bikes. However, the limited usable space on a bike and the short interaction time between the user and the app make it hard to generate significant income this way.

Teething problems persist but bike-share schemes likely to keep growing

In Beijing and Shanghai, where dockless shared bikes were first introduced, bikes have been thrown into rivers, garbage dumps and even into trees. Pedestrians are forced to push their way through swathes of parked dockless shared bikes, often leaving behind a trail of fallen bikes or bikes stacked on top of one another on footpaths. The Hangzhou government has seized tens of thousands of shared bikes in an attempt to reinforce bike parking laws.

Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle has complained that Obikes are the source of so much clutter that he has threatened to ban them altogether.

In spite of these ongoing problems, bike-share schemes continue to grow into new markets globally, with new schemes in Florence and Milan the latest examples. At the same time, withdrawals from the market by less competitive or poorly executed models are occurring.

Local controversies over shared-bike schemes are expressions of how resident behaviour, municipal bylaws and cycling infrastructure are all too often proving to be unprepared to embrace and support a new mode of urban transport.

The ConversationPublic and local government criticisms and complaints may delay (or in extreme cases) even ban the bikes from particular cities. But as long as the interest for capital expansion and the broad social, environmental and health benefits are recognised, these schemes will continue to grow globally.

Sun Sheng Han is professor of urban planning at the University of Melbourne.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.


The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.