23 June 2017

A Lump Of Coal In The Emerald City And The Land Of Jade

A couple of years ago, bike-share programs seemed like "can't-miss" propositions. 

Most municipalities with programs--whether they're funded by cities or corporations, or are not-for-profit organizations, have reported great success.  Share programs have expanded steadily in just about every place they've been introduced, and other cites--some of which you might not connect with cycling--are clamoring to start their own share programs.

Bikes from Pronto, Seattle's late bike-sharing program

One rare exception has been Pronto, Seattle's bike-share program.  It closed on 31 March, citing low ridership.  Several reasons have been cited for the program's failure.  One is that the Emerald City has a mandatory helmet law.  Cyclists who ride without head armor can be fined $102.  More important, getting on a share bike is, as often as not, a spur-of-the-moment decision, and few people carry helmets with them when they're not on bikes.  Many bike-share users are tourists; even those who are active cyclists at home aren't likely to bring helmets with them because, especially if they don't normally wear them.

Three other cities with share programs also have mandatory-helmet laws:  Vancouver and the Australian metropoli of Melbourne and Brisbane.  Share programs in the latter two cities  struggled until they followed Vancouver's lead in including helmets and disposable liners with the bikes.  In 2015, Seattle installed helmet dispensers by the Pronto kiosks, but potential users seemed to find it an inconvenience.

Other factors cited in the Seattle program's failure are the city's terrain and climate.  Now, I can understand why people wouldn't want to pedal a heavy share bike up a hill.  I can even understand why someone wouldn't want to ride in the rain.  But long before Portland became the iconic "bike friendly" city, Seattle had a vibrant cycling community.  In fact, it once boasted more bike shops, per capita, than any other major US city.  The weather didn't seem to put a damper (pun intended) on cycling then, or now.

Then again, I can also understand why a tourist might not want to ride in the rain--especially if he or she is accustomed to more sunshine at home.  If you're used to, say, Florida, and you're only going to be in Seattle for a few days, you might decide to simply wait until you get home to start riding again.

While the causes of the Seattle share program's failures might be debatable, Lei Houyi knows exactly why his bike-share company is closing shop.

These bikes belong to Oko, one of the apps-based Chinese ride-sharing systems.

In contrast with its western counterparts, many Chinese bike-share programs can best be described as "Uber for bikes":  Riders can pick up, or leave, bikes on the streets, without having to look for a port or dock.  Wukong Bikes, based in Chongqin, also followed this model.  But they didn't follow a practice common to other Chinese share companies:  It didn't install GPS devices on their bikes.

The result was all too predictable:  Most of Wukong's 1200 bikes were lost or stolen.  By the time the company realized it needed tracking devices, Houyi said, it was too late:  The bikes were gone and the money had run out.

But, he says, even before his bikes started to disappear, the company was struggling because the bikes were of inferior quality to, and more easily damaged than, those of Ofo and Mobike, the leading Chinese bike-share companies.  The services of those companies are completely app-based.  So, while bikes left in remote locations can still be difficult for customers to locate, they are rarely lost, and when they are damaged, they can be fixed relatively quickly.

So, while I think bike share programs will continue to grow in popularity, they are not "sure-fire bets", even in the most seemingly "bike-friendly" environments, unless technological as well as cultural and legal factors are considered.

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