Dockless bike-share has hit the UK. What will it do to our streets?

Mobike in Beijing. Image: Getty.

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.

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.