Dockless bike sharing: ‘wheely’ good idea or public nuisance?

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The shift from station-based to dockless bike sharing systems presents an opportunity to cities across the world to encourage more cycling, promote healthy mobility and increase decarbonisation efforts. However, the rise of privately-funded, unlicensed dockless bike share operators has resulted in a myriad of problems for public authorities: from discarded bicycles, to safety concerns and lack of accountability. A new Common Position Paper from UITP, the European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF) and its Platform for European Bike Sharing and Systems (PEBSS), urges cities to develop a framework to ensure that dockless systems contribute to a successful urban mobility strategy.

Bike sharing shifts gears

Around the world, station-based (or ‘docked’) bike sharing systems have flourished, fostering healthy mobility and improving first- and last-mile connectivity. The contribution that these systems make to a sustainable mobility strategy is clear, however, some cities and public authorities have been reluctant to embrace them due to high implementation and maintenance costs.

The arrival of ‘smart’ bikes – equipped with technology that allows for unlocking and tracking – opens up the possibility of dockless operation. These bicycles are generally app-controlled, unlocked by scanning a QR code, and can be tracked through integrated GPS systems. 

More bikes, more problems?

The lack of infrastructure and general low barriers of entry to the dockless bike sharing market have led to cities being flooded with privately-funded smart bikes, operating without any public license or official consent. China in particular has had to cope with hundreds of thousands of unlicensed bikes. Key among the many policy implications of this influx of bikes is the lack of redistribution efforts from operators.

Docked systems ensure a balanced stock of bicycles in a city; without docks, bikes tend to pile up in popular locations (near landmarks, beaches or at the bottom of hills). This not only leads to the public nuisance and safety hazard of stacks of discarded bikes, but also significant clean-up costs. A recent study in Amsterdam calculated that the removal of a single ‘orphan’ bicycle can cost up to €53.

The removal of a single ‘orphan’ bicycle can cost up to €53

Singapore holds operators accountable

The limited land space and rapid population growth make Singapore an ideal target for bike share schemes. “In a small and dense city like Singapore, cycling is actually a good alternative to driving for short trips, and also for first- and last-mile connections to public transport”, says Shin Gee Tan, head of the Active Mobility and Policy Division at Singapore’s Land Transport Authority (LTA).

After seeing an influx of unlicensed dockless systems, LTA took immediate measures, for example requiring that operators provide direct feedback channels ensuring for prompt bicycle removal. Included in LTA’s regulations is the importance of setting up measures that incentivise good parking behaviour. 

On the road to decarbonisation

While unlicensed dockless bike sharing has its drawbacks, the fact is that more cycling leads to a healthier city, and contributes to decarbonisation efforts.

With ambitious expansion plans in place for 2017, and significant venture capital investment already raised, the question is not if, but when, dockless bike sharing will arrive in your city. Public authorities must develop comprehensive framework in order to ensure that dockless systems complement local mobility policy and help meet sustainability goals. The series of recommendations and best practices that UITP, ECF and PEBSS have developed can assist cities in producing their own framework.


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