Friday, April 25, 2014

Biking Nations: Looking to London for the Future of Bike Share

It's a sunny morning in late March - just a few days before the Delhi and Gurgaon adventure - and I'm in London standing just outside of the Waterloo Underground station. To say I'm completely transfixed at what I'm seeing is an understatement. 

Four men with yellow reflective vests are walking bikes - two each - toward the station's Cycle Hire dock. Several people are standing in line about fifteen feet from me and ten feet from the dock holding briefcases, checking their phones, and just generally looking like people heading off to work on a weekday morning. Even though there is no velvet rope, no signage and no lines on the pavement, they seem to know exactly where to stand.

Without a word each of the four men push their two bikes into individual docks - each successful move followed by a 'clang.' In seconds, all eight bikes are lined up at the dock. 

As soon as the four men aren't between the commuters and the bikes, the commuters get out of line and head to the nearest one. All of them have membership keys which make it easy to unlock one of the blue Barclay bikes (often called 'Boris Bikes') quickly. Some put on helmets they brought themselves, some don't, but they all get on bikes and start pedaling away from the station. 

It takes less than a minute for all of the bikes to depart. While that is going on, a new line starts up and within a minute or two the four workers are returning, once again pushing two bikes each, to lock the bikes in place only for them to disappear just as quickly as another line of waiting commuters begins to form.  

The reason I'm standing at Waterloo station is that it is the busiest station London's cycle share program has: 126 docks, and at 8:20 in the morning each and every one was empty - and would remain that way were it not for the four workers who, for the good hour I stood watching them, replenished the station eight bikes at time from a massive, fence-enclosed pen close to the station. 

A line forms.

The bikes are pushed into place by the workers. 

The bikes are ridden away by commuters. 

Second verse, same as first. 

It didn't take long for me to realize what I was seeing: a well-oiled machine that has got to be made obsolete for the sake of the future of bike share.

How I got to be standing in front of Waterloo station came from a meeting I had the afternoon before with David Eddington, the operations manager of Barclay's Cycle Hire. That meeting came from a concept I wanted to pitch (and still am pitching) to magazines here in the U.S.: taking a critical look at London's now nearly four-year-old bike share to see what lessons could be applied to newer bike share programs, like New York's. Thankfully, David agreed to talk with me at their office, which, conveniently enough, is right across from a Cycle Hire dock. 

While this was my eighth or ninth trip to London and my third time signing up for a week's worth of usage with Barclay Bikes, this wasn't going to be a simple practical trip to the London Book Fair or a fun challenge like riding across the city to meet an old friend at the Fig and Olive. I needed to look at bike share on a very critical level and it isn't always easy to get a cyclist to do that. 

During the day, I was able to talk to different cyclists (both those who use the system and those who don't) as well as bike shop managers to get their opinions on Barclay Bikes.

A commuter from outside of London named Chris, who has been a longtime user of the bike share, actually mentioned one of my complaints when using the system: the docking station sometimes has trouble reading a credit card. He did tell me - as I had already found - that when a card is finally accepted it usually works again the next time around. 

This is an important point if you ever think about using this system: all of the commuters I saw at Waterloo had membership keys which allow a bike to be removed in a few seconds. I had to insert my credit card, move through a few dodgy screens, get my little piece of paper printed with the release code on it, and then carry that piece of paper to a bike to carefully type in the code. Below is a photo of the fifteen or so slips I had collected in the three or four days I was in London to use the system.

I also met a vivacious and fast-talking young woman named Susie - whose short hair revealed a cigarette tucked behind her ear - who told me her ass doesn't fit on the seat ('it's like a sofa,' she complained, probably referring to the seat). 

A bike shop employee (working at a store that doesn't rent bikes) said the Barclay Bike scheme is a 'glorious program' and the biggest problem was that 'people who ride them act like pedestrians' by riding on narrow sidewalks and other places they shouldn't go. He added that some people who have been 'fed up with the weight and the practicality' of them - particularly when there is no docking station available - have bought bikes. He describes this group as being 'experienced commuters' rather than 'experienced cyclists.'

Eventually I came to a bike rental place in London not far from my hotel: On Your Bike, which is under a street.

Okay, I thought. Now I'm going to find someone who doesn't like the Barclay Bikes. But the owner, Robert Chappell, was sure it wasn't affecting his rental business - which deals in everything from hybrids to pricey road bikes rented out for weekends or races.

Robert's main point was that the Barclay Bikes have 'raised the profile of cycling' which made me think of how much safer some cities and countries are when there are a lot of bikes on the road (an issue covered in the excellent book, 'Traffic'). He also echoed the point of Susie when it came to comfort and the other shop owner when it came to the weight of the bikes: "If you want to ride from A to B, get a Boris bike," he said. "But if you want to use a bike for more than a half hour at a time, come see me."

When I met with David Eddington, I got to give him a lot of amusement (and, quite possibly, a free consulting engagement) by reading off some of my notes about what I had learned from the people I had spoken with about Cycle Hire. As I expected, David gave me some highlights of the London bike share program with enthusiasm: the system started off in July of 2010 with 400 bike stations and 6,000 bikes, and as of the afternoon of our meeting the program had 729 stations and 11,000 bikes (about 500 of which are being maintained or otherwise out of commission at any given time). 

The system smashed usage records during the Summer Olympics - 47,102 trips in one day in August of 2012. And because buses and other transit do not run on Christmas Day, the system had about 28,000 trips made on December 25, 2013. Christmas has become so popular a photographer David knows complained that the one day a year London would normally look empty was now ruined because there are so many cyclists about. 

David freely acknowledged that Barclays was going to end its sponsorship of the program by August of 2015, which gives the bike share more than a year to find another sponsor. He stressed the end of the sponsorship wasn't due to a falling out, but rather 'a commercial decision' on the part of Barclays. 

Like New York, the London bike share program has been given a lot of criticism due to the costs. Maintenance is obviously an issue, but so is the shuttling of bikes around the city to docking stations where they are needed.

And like New York, the big problems faced has to do with the popularity: David told me the biggest challenge has always been meeting demand and making sure a commuter (like the ones I saw in Waterloo) would have a bike where he or she wanted it and be able to drop it off where he or she wanted. 

I actually got to experience this myself: when riding from the hotel to the opening day of the London Film Museum's 'Bond in Motion' exhibit, it took me two tries to find a station (one of those times I punched in my bike's number at the full station so I could get the 15 minute grace period to find another station). 

The imperfect system worked, and I was able to dock the bike and walk a short distance to the museum to see the Aston Martin DB5.

I was also able to see some of the non-Aston Martin cars from 'The Sellout Years.'

But we're getting off the subject.

The most important piece of information I learned from David is the usage patterns: because the bikes are equipped with RFID chips, Cycle Hire knows how long bikes are out and where they go. Also, the average trip length of people who were annual members stood at 14 minutes, while a non-members like myself were logging average trips of 31 minutes.

I thanked David profusely for his time and insight before leaving the building, unlocking a bike, and pedaling back to my hotel. Because it was now the end of the day, I had a lot of company on London's roads. 

The next morning, I visited the Waterloo station (per David's suggestion) to observe how the bike stations were restocked during the morning rush. 

During that morning and in the following days, I thought about what I had learned from David, from the people I had spoken with, my own use of the system and what I saw at Waterloo. I hope everyone from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, members of Congress (my own congressman, Jim Himes, showed me the membership key for the Capital BikeShare system in Washington D.C.), bike share champions, municipalities and companies thinking about sponsoring these programs reads this, so please share this post:

Bike share systems like London's and New York's are ours to save or ruin. As of today, they are popular, essential and imperfect. It is in the public interest to keep these things, and a city's bloodstream flows a lot better when people are above ground: a recent study showed New Yorkers are taking taxis less and riding bikes more - and that trend was taking shape years before the first CitiBike kiosk showed up. 

Not only that, but criticism of bike share programs - especially New York City's - can't focus on the financial costs and struggles without putting all of a city's commuting needs into a proper context. One of the most unintentionally laughable things I've read on CitiBike came from a New York Post article that said there were 'only' 312,000 rides in January since the 'brutal winter' took its toll on usage (the article helpfully pointed out that July had more than 950,000 rides…because, living in New England, I had no idea that more people ride in warmer months than in colder months).   

In case you're wondering, the article said nothing about the increased competition for cabs, seats on the subway or on the bus if all of a sudden hundreds of thousands of trips could no longer be taken by bike. 

So here are my thoughts on the future of bike share globally:

1) Membership Needs to Cost More. It doesn't feel good at all to type that, but as a person who owns several bikes and has to spend time and money with the upkeep, I can say with a straight face that buying annual access to a bike (in New York City, the cost of an annual membership is $95 while in London it costs around the equivalent of $151 U.S.) and never having to buy or use any tools whatsoever - and not having to even own a lock - is a big part of the value with bike share. It needs to cost more, and if the value of accessing a bike keeps rising (with an increase in the number of stations, for instance) commuters will come to accept the cost.

2) The Program Needs to Incentivize 'Reverse Commuting' I've never been a fan of the geek culture or a blind follower of all things digital, but the right application of technology is really going to work wonders for bike share. Think about this: my wife and I, when going out to dinner, often decide where we'll go based on what the traffic is on I-95. Since neither of us has News 8's Teresa Dufour on speed dial, we wait until we're driving on the Urban Transitway where we can see the highway on the overpass and determine whether it's jammed or not.

Also, if we have a coupon at a certain restaurant that is about to expire, we'll go there. If I realize two errands are at nearby places, I'll adjust my route accordingly. I know we aren't the only ones who make travel decisions on the fly. Now imagine a bike share station in the future that is completely full, and a screen on the kiosk says something along the lines of "Ride to Waterloo Now and Get Points Off Next Year's Membership!" someone might spontaneously decide to hop on a bike and ride it to that spot - thus eliminating the need of moving bikes by truck. If stations are sophisticated enough to 'know' what stations are full and which ones need filling, some mighty creative ways to incentivize people to get on a bike and ride somewhere can be found. 

3) Bikes Themselves Will Get Smarter. In addition to the stations ultimately becoming smart, the bikes will get smarter, too. Let me show you an example of what I'm talking about.

This is what a London docking station looks like; very similar to a CitiBike one. It includes a red button that the user can press if a bike is damaged. This locks the bike and keeps others from using it and alerts the maintenance team who can come and service the bike.

The flaw is that this system places the burden on the user to push the button, and it also leaves the word 'damaged' to be defined and interpreted by the user. And you've seen some of my bikes: do you want me to be the one who defines 'damaged?'

I didn't think so. 

During my time in London, I used a lot of Barclay Bikes that were just perfect. I also used a bike that had a missing kickstand, one that had astoundingly loud brakes, and another that made a recurring sound from the drivetrain.

Did I push the red button when I docked? No. (I'm really sorry, Cycle Hire users, but I was so scoped up with my end destination - be it Bond in Motion, the Shoreditch headquarters of super-cool bike-light maker Blaze, or the always wonderful Borough Market - I just plain forgot to hit the red button or turn the seat around. Hashtag: my bad). 

London bikes are currently maintained every six months no matter what, but eventually I think bike share bicycles will be smart enough to know when they need service or have sustained some amount of damage that needs to be looked at. I know it adds a layer of complexity, but if the bike that made the recurring noise from the drivetrain was able to recognize something was wrong, lock itself, and alert the maintenance team on its own (even specifying where the problem was to save the maintenance worker time diagnosing the problem) it would potentially save money in the long term - just like having symptoms checked out by a doctor is better than waiting until things are worse and showing up in an emergency room.

4) The System Will Incentivize Casual Users More Years ago, when studying customer loyalty programs in general and Amazon in particular, I learned that once a person spends money on a loyalty program they are incentivized to use the program as much as possible. It's a psychological change…of some kind. Borders Group made its customer loyalty program free to join, but with no money spent by the consumer there was no reason to stay with the program. But with a program like Amazon Prime (that costs over $100 per year) a person thinks 'I paid for this relationship, I want to get as much out of it as I possibly can.' To me, this went a long way to explaining why the average trip length of an annual member for the London program was 14 minutes while casual users averaged out at 31: because the annual members had already paid up (and, also, they know London better than I do) there's no incentive for them to pay more since trips under thirty minutes are free. 

Even though the casual user winds up putting more money into the system since their trips tend to be longer, there are fewer of them in any given season than annual members (statistics helpfully provided by Transport for London confirmed that the majority of users are members, with the number of casual users ebbing and flowing depending on the season). 

And, seemingly by accident, casual users like myself - who have no membership key - need to go through a lot more hoops to unlock a bike even though, as a person who gets lost nine times a day before breakfast, my trips will be longer and put more money into the system. A goal should be getting these member keys into the hands of everyone who goes to London.

This is a rare look at my 'travel cache' which consist of tiny plastic boxes which once contained Johnson & Johnson first aid kits. There's enough room in each tiny box for a little currency (just enough to buy a cup of coffee when I land somewhere is all I need) and anything else demanded by the country - usually a transit pass. Years ago, I got an Oyster card for the bus and Underground and keep it to use for the next time I'm in London, and I charge it up when I arrive. I want to put a Cycle Hire member key there, and ideally Cycle Hire would incentive me and others to do so. 

4) Sponsorship Will Get More Creative David Eddington of Cycle Hire indicated this is already taking place as experiments are being done with sponsored private docking. Should the docking stations themselves get more sophisticated, each individual bike dock (which will have a touch screen instead of the buttons) may one day recognize the member key when it is placed in and, for the two or three second period while the bike is released, display an ad in front of the 'please wait' message that makes sense to the user. 

5) Governments Will Provide More Support The increased use of cycling in cities started before bike share and is going to continue because, if for no other reason, there is nowhere else for cities to go. Sidewalks are jammed, subway stations are full to the point of being ghastly, not everyone can or will ride on a bus and personal motor vehicles, quite frankly, are choking cities to death. 

Eventually, bike share will be recognized as a 'mass transit' system and be funded accordingly. After all, it keeps people above ground where they can see businesses and restaurants they can visit later, helps people stay in shape, and it adds material value to communities, as a study of real estate prices near London Cycle Hire docks shows.

No matter how my vision of bike share's future plays out (or, for that matter, the speed at which this or any future plays out) we can't dismiss the problems of bike share concepts by simply saying that it is 'popular.' Tower Records was popular. Google Reader was popular. Borders Group was popular. If you want to go back further than that: the streetcar that carried people around my Stamford neighborhood 100 years ago was popular, too. Not even the most promising concept of getting people around a city is immortal, and bike share, which is relatively new, is one of those concepts that needs proper care and proper feeding. Writing letters to your mayor, your representative in congress or city leaders would go a long way to help these programs - and if we all understand this is only the beginning of bike share we'll realize it, and our cities, can only get better if we treat this right. Thanks for reading and thanks for riding. 

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