Tag Archives: bikesharing

Semi-formalism: a new global agenda for “development”?

As you may have noticed, I have been offline on this blog for the past few months. Needless to say, my thinking has been shifting quite considerably on where I see the future of transportation heading and the role of the bicycle within it as a piece of a broader system- not the end objective of a “sustainable” city. I still love my bike, but I’ve been becoming increasingly interested in developments in shared vehicles, multi-modalism and the idea of “mobility as a service”.

I’ve moved to San Francisco and started digging into these issues in some specific startup projects which will be unveiled over time, though one can be viewed in a recent New York Times write-up.

This blog will likely take a new shape (and perhaps a new name) to reflect these changes. In the meantime, here is grand theoretical musing for your reading pleasure to get a sense of where my head is these days. Looking forward to feedback on what is still a somewhat nascent idea.

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“Semi-formal” systems should be the new model for global development.

Generally, I see the global north being “too” formal in its development. Formalization can improve health and well being, and reduce societal risks (eg, traffic rules). However, it can also be far too rigid and slow moving and restricts innovation, possibilities and potentialities that do not meet all regulations.

The global south is “too” informal. Excessive informality can lead to corruption, safety and health issues, lack of consumer rights, etc. The north’s development efforts (and funding) largely go to formalization of the south under the premises of “modernization” and “progress” with the north presumed as the zenith. This doesn’t always work for lots of reasons (cultural, political, etc.).

For instance, an experiment in Phnom Penh to put in a bus line failed. Why ride on this thing that only leaves once every 15 minutes and gives a fixed route? Why bother when I can hop on the back of anyone’s motorcycle taxi and go anywhere anytime?

In Bangkok, however, they have what I see as the trappings of a semi-formal system. It’s easy to become a moto taxi but you need to register and get a license, have a helmet for passengers, and wear a special yellow jacket. It’s not as regulated as say the NYC taxi system while still providing some level of protection for consumers. Minibusses and shared cabs, when somewhat regulated, could also provide a semi-formal transport mode which provide the benefits of a flexible system with the safety regulations of a formal system. And why don’t we have any of these systems in more “developed” countries?

What I think we are starting to see (rideshare, carshare, bikeshare, collaborative consumption, etc.) is a move toward a new form of development, a new concept. In my more radical theorizing, we are even moving beyond capitalism. Our means of exchange are in flux, borrowing from older concepts (trade/barter/share) but advanced by some of the securities of new technologies (trust/reputation/accountability).

We will start seeing new monetary systems developed (eg, bitcoin) and new funding mechanisms that are more grassroots and peer-to-peer (eg, kiva, kickstarter). There will be more “money” than ever before in the new economy. We are living in the times of economic deprivation by comparison.

I think the north is becoming less formal as an economic system, particularly as we continue into our fourth year of economic “downturn” with no upturn in sight. What we should be setting as a new target for development globally is something less formal than the north, while more formal than the south. The north should stop presuming it has all the answers and start learning from the south. The south should be reflecting on its own context and develop solutions that grow out of its own needs.

My proposition is that semi-formality should be the new target to be met, putting north and south on equitable terms toward a common, more sustainable global pursuit, hybridizing the best of formal and informal systems. Specific solutions can draw on other models globally for inspiration but should be refined and rethought – perhaps even radically – to be locally and contextually relevant. Collaborative consumption, peer-to-peer carsharing, bikesharing, and ridesharing particularly, are just instances of a much larger trend that I see in the horizon.

Let us build toward this convergence toward a common global aim. The lines between public and private transport will blur. The lines between modern and old fashioned will blur. The future will be better. The future will be semi-formal.

Two wheels in Taipei… but with an engine

Streets, roads and sidewalks in Taipei are full of two wheels. 36,8% of commuters actually use their own two wheels (33,8% public transit; 18,7% car; in 2009). However, “two wheels”  mainly correspond to a motorcycle (34%) and only very few use actual bikes (2,8%). This can easily be noticed at each traffic intersection in Taipei.

Efforts have been done by the municipality to promote bikes for commuting. One of the recent examples is the introduction of a bike sharing system, “YouBike”. 11 stations can be found in the Xinyi district, the international business and shopping district of the capital city. Geographically limited, only few people are actually riding a YouBike  (mostly tourists). Stations indeed do not look very busy. The system is pretty user friendly though: a public transport card allows access to rent a bike and the first half hour is free.

High concentrations of bikes can nonetheless be found at specific locations throughout Taipei. It is easy to guess where universities are located: an high concentration of bikes is indeed very likely to be linked with the proximity of a university.

In parallel, it is worth mentioning efforts made by the municipality to control the number of scooters. For instance, scooters parked outside their dedicated parking areas are more strictly punished than in the past. Many of them also park tend to use sidewalks as parking space, making life for pedestrians a bit more adventurous.

This post comes to us from Julien Grunfelder, a fellow PhD student at the University of Copenhagen.

Should we be Copenhagenizing Cape Town?

I just got back from a week in Seville, Spain at the Velo-City global bicycling conference. Velo-City began as a european bicycling conference in 1980 and was held bi-annually since 1987. As of last year, it became an annual event and opened its doors to presenters from around the world.

This is great progress. However, to what extent are issues in Africa relevant to those in Europe? Can Cape Town learn from Amsterdam or Dallas learn from Copenhagen? How much is “knowledge sharing” between such radically different contexts valuable?

At this year’s event, I spent a lot of time hanging out with the few folks who had made the trip up from the lovely “country” of Africa since it is a part of the world which is still a bit of fuzzy territory for me. Most of these people were from English speaking countries in southern Africa, and many of them were ex-pats themselves working on various bicycle related projects.

It became rapidly clear, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the issues people are addressing in Africa are in a completely different universe from those in Europe.

In the global north, cycling is seen as a means of urban transport which is promoted mainly by city planners as a means to reduce motorized transportation for health, “liveability”, and environmental sustainability. Most of those of us involved in this movement are well educated and generally reasonably well off as are most of those actually cycling. Most people have access to other means of transport such as busses or cars and are choosing the bicycle, perhaps in addition to other modes.

By stark contrast, African projects were dealing with people (often women) who were typically rural, poor, and do not have access to other means of transportation. The goal of many of these projects is to give people greater mobility, thereby decreasing the amount of time necessary to access basic needs like jobs, water, food, etc. Most people working in this sector come from international development, not urban planning.

This contrast was perhaps starkest in the fourth plenary session with Kayemba Patrick from ITDP in Uganda and Joaquin Nieto from the International Labour Foundation for Sustainable Development discussing economic benefits of cycling.

Nieto spoke about how European bikeshare programs create jobs for cities (largely through what I would consider to be high degrees of inefficiencies in redistribution and maintenance). Patrick spoke about how getting access to a bike reduces the amount of time women in rural Uganda have to spend getting water and access to economic opportunities. They were then engaged in a discussion afterwards where it was clear that neither one of them really had any idea how to find any sort of common ground.

Another strange pairing was between Marie Kåstrup from Copenhagen and Gail Jennings from Cape Town speaking about women and bicycling. Kåstrup spoke about the “cycling girl” narrative in Denmark where woman and cycling are portrayed as soul mates, which logically and intuitively serve as icons for the national past time of cycling. In Denmark, almost as many women bike as men. Jennings talked about how woman are sexualized in their portrayal next to bicycles, with images of women in tight mini-skirts sexually pumping air into tires. In Cape Town, most cyclists are riding for sport- not transport- and about 75% of cyclists are men. Very few women ride bicycles and to do so is to ask for censure at every turn.

The point here is not to get into discussions about the specifics of these issues (I refer you to the people mentioned for those details). My point is more to question what we hope to gain by bringing people together from different contexts and what can be learned from “European best practices” from Copenhagen, Amsterdam or anywhere else.

There is a growing cadre of professionals who would like you to believe that a bicycling culture is something that can be readily “transferred”. It’s easy. Simply find somewhere that lots of people ride bicycles, copy the infrastructure and policy that “worked” there in your home town and then stand back and wait for people to start riding.

But guess what? What works in Copenhagen may not work in Cape Town.

What I heard from many people coming from the global south in particular was that they didn’t really care much about what was going on in Europe. What they wanted was to share knowledge between cities in the global south. South African cities probably have more to learn from cities (and rural areas) in India than from Europe.

The same is likely true in the global north. Gas guzzling Dallas came to Velo-City to learn how car-centric Seville has seen increases in bicycling from 0.5% to 6.6% in the past three years. Dallas planners won’t be making any trips to Copenhagen, even though Danes bike 37% here in the capital city.

A Velo-City global venue may still be useful but we still need to do some thinking around how, exactly, it is useful. In the meantime, we need to be facilitating venues for the sharing of knowledge between similar cities and working to develop context specific solutions from a deep understanding of local needs, not trying to make Cape Town into the next Amsterdam.

Bikeshare for robust cycle cultures

There are currently 238 bikeshare schemes in the world. This appears to be increasing at roughly 50% per year. If this rate continues, we will have some 1.200 bikeshare schemes by 2014. The next areas of major growth is in the US, Canada, and Australia, all of which also have pitiful cycling rates of around 1% of people biking in most cities. It will be exciting to see how these cities adapt European models for their local context.

But w hat about rapidly developing countries like India, China, and South Africa that have high cycling rates now but that are losting cyclists as the economy picks up and more people move to cars? They have many large contextual differences with Europe, but if they are to take any inspiration from bikesharin models, maybe they should consider looking at countries with robust cycling cultures like Holland, Denmark, and Germany- who are trying to keep people on bikes- not those with few cyclists like France, UK, or Spain who are trying to move people onto bikes.

Early innovation in bikesharing came out of robust cycling cultures like Holland and Denmark where about 20-40% of the population bikes. Most of the early growth in recent, high-tech bikesharing has come out of countries like France, Spain, and the UK where only  1% of the population rides a bike for transport.

Another big expanding market will be in rapidly developing countries like Brazil, China, South African and India which all have very high cycling rates which range from roughly 20-70% of the population. These are mainly ‘captive users’ who bike because they can’t afford other options.  As people get richer, they move to motorized vehicles, in part for speed and in part to gain higher status. These cities will need to develop their own local models, which are only just beginning to crop up in cities like Hangzhou, Buenos Aires, New Delhi, and Taipei.

These new models should develop from the local context up. However, if they are to take any leads from European cities, maybe they should look to those with a high modal split, like Denmark and Holland, not a low modal split like France or the UK.

In Holland, the OV-Fiets system is hooked into the national train company. Many people live and work in different cities, but when you have a huge number of cyclists, it is hard to fit them all onto the trains. Anyone who has ridden a train in Holland knows that there is virtually no integration for cyclists on the trains. It costs an exorbitant amount, you have to put them into the entryway of the car with no special racks (except on long distance international trains), the elevators are small, and none of this is easy given how heavy Dutch bikes are.

The solution, until recently, was to buy two bikes- one for the ‘home’ end and one for the ‘work’ end. You then bike to one station, ride to your destination city, and then pick up your second bike to ride onward.  OV-Fiets is integrated with the train operator. You pay only €10 per year in membership and then €3 per ride for up to 24 hours. This seems to be well enjoyed and used by Dutch I have spoken with.

Odense in Denmark is trying a similar concept geared toward commuters that is set to launch this spring. This program will cost you about €7 per week, €13 per month, or €33 per year. In the meantime, since October of last year, they have been using a phone based service where you pay about €2,50 per hour as a flat usage fee that comes off your phone bill.  JC Decaux, who runs many existing services, will operate it. It’s not clear to me how well used this service is since I haven’t met anyone who has used it yet.

Germany, with about 10% of the population biking, has NextBike and Call-A-Bike which I have written about in an earlier post. These are both floating systems, with no parking stations. Both use cell phones, not smart cards. Call-A-Bike is integrated with the DB train system and NextBike is a private operator, whose money comes from advertising and usage fees. NextBike is €1 per hour or €5 per day. Call-A-Bike is €0.08 per minute, €9-12 per day, and €45-60 per week. You can also pay €27-36 per year and then get the first 30 minutes free. NextBike uses extremely cheap bikes with no technology, while Call-A-Bike uses extremely expensive, high-tech bikes. Call-A-Bike bikes have to be placed in certain areas, while NextBike’s can be placed anywhere in the central city. Anecdotal evidence from one user suggests that forcing people to return Call-A-Bike bikes to a certain location is a deterrent, however given the spread of both of these systems throughout a multitude of cities in Germany and abroad, they must be doing something right.

These services pricing models are unlike systems like the oft touted London, Paris or Barcelona schemes which typically cost more like 50€ per year where the first 30 minutes is free and then there is a tiered hourly pricing thereafter. These systems for robust cycling communities are also more focused on daily commuters and many use cell phones, not smart cards. The German ones have also experimented with floating models which do not require parking spaces, and may help with the distribution issue.

As rapidly developing cities begin to implement bikeshare schemes, we will start to see new paradigms emerging. These contexts are dramatically different in that they consist of large, dense, cities coupled with cheap labor, high theft issues, massive social inequity, completely different cultural norms, and limited technology and data access. These cities have high cycling rates now but they are all dropping due to all manner of motorized alternatives, just as we saw in western cities 50 years ago with the entrance of cars.

This context provides its own limitations while also opening up new possibilities and local models will have to be developed. But if there is anywhere to look for inspiration in Europe, it could be from systems where cycling rates are high and municipalities are trying to keep them that way, not cities where rates are low and they are trying to increase them.

How to make biking for all, not just the rich or poor?

Why is it that cycling seems to be primarily for poor people in developing countries like India, rich people in developed countries with low cycling rates like the US and a middle class phenomenon in developed countries with high cycling rates like Denmark and Holland?

Most cyclists in developing countries are what is known as “captive users”. They are riding not because they want to so much as because they cannot afford other options such as busses, let alone cars.

When I was in India this summer, I learned that many of the people who are cycling are men who are delivering things, like milk or vegetables. What was really shocking was that many of these people earned so little money that they could not even afford to buy their own bicycles, even though they only cost about $50. Instead, they were renting them for about 10 cents/hour from local bicycle shops. To my knowledge, there is no one with a rent-to-own system, but it would be great to set one up if anyone is looking for a social entrepreneurship project.

Milk delivery man in Pune, India

Most anyone with any money in India will immediately start riding the bus or (in the case of delivery men) buy themselves a motor scooter. If they have a bit more money, they will buy a car and if they have even more money, they will buy a fancier car. If they really have some money, they will hire a private driver to get them around. Basically, the more money people have, the more likely they are to drive a motorized vehicle and the less likely they are to consider anything non-motorized (including walking).

There are a few crazy people in India who are wealthy but still ride bicycles. I think I spoke with all four of them while I was there. Personally, I feel that these are the people who will be able to make a push for cycling in India since they have the political and economic capital to make it happen. But this is the topic of another article to come.

I just recently came back from my home country, the USA. There are many exciting developments going on in the past few years and I truly applaud the efforts there. But one thing really struck me from my visit to DC and New York (see links for cycling maps): most of the cycling infrastructure being developed is in neighborhoods inhabited by mainly wealthy, well-educated people like Park Slope and Dupont Circle and not in poorer neighborhoods like the Bronx or Anacostia.

Innovative cycling infrastructure near Dupont Circle in DC

One could be cynical and argue that this because planners are themselves living in these neighborhoods. While there is perhaps a degree of truth in that (and I believe there are some race and class issues in the planning field that need to be discussed more), I think there is more going on.

In speaking with planners, they said that they had tried to make inroads in some of these communities, but that they had received lower adoption rates. For instance, the DC bikeshare scheme Capital Bikes has a station in Anacostia but it is not used as much as in other neighborhoods. They said that this use of the bikeshare system mirrored the cycling demographics in general.

 

Anacostia waterfront neighborhood in DC cycling infrastructure

I went over there and investigated that area. There was a big fancy new development near the station, but much of the rest of the neighborhood seemed a bit more lower class and black. Most people seemed to be driving around in big SUVs. I met a young white man on the train who said he liked my bike and that he had just moved to the neighborhood and wanted to get a bike but complained that there was no infrastructure.

My guess is that the neighborhood is gentrifying and that the people who are using the bikeshare there are the young, largely white and educated, professionals moving in- not the poorer, uneducated black population.

In Copenhagen, by contrast, cycling is a decisively middle class phenomenon. However, what constitutes “middle class” here would be considered quite upper class in the US or India: most people have a college degree (which the government will pay you to get), being able to afford a fur coat is practically considered a human (though not animal) right, everyone has free health care, and there are virtually no homeless people.

Middle class Danish SUV

In Copenhagen you will see ambassadors, politicians and rock stars riding bicycles next to the average Dane. What you won’t see, however, is many muslim immigrants on bikes, despite the world class cycling infrastructure. Is this a skills and training issue, or is it more about integration and culture? Is bike riding just a particularly nationalistic endeavor? Is it still something for rich, white, educated people here too and it’s just that Denmark is a more homogeneous society of rich, white, educated people?

I don’t know the answer to that question though I clearly have my suspicions. What we really need is more research, discussion and action on issues related to race, class, religion, culture and cycling. Otherwise, we run the risk of creating increasing inequities in cites under the auspices of creating a more equitable transportation infrastructure.

What good is a bikeshare system, anyway?

What impact does a modern bikesharing system really have on bicycling? So far, the evidence on direct benefits  seem somewhat weak at first glance. Several papers were presented at the Transportation Research Board in DC last week assessing schemes from around the world and the findings seemed remarkably similar regardless of context.

Most users are those who already rode a bicycle before with the remainder primarily taken from transit. Few are leaving their cars parked and hopping on bikes.

Most trips are commute trips, meaning the bikes wind up downtown in the morning and at the edge of town in the evening, creating a headache for distribution. The city of DC estimates spending over $1M per year, or half of its operating budget, just driving bikes around the city to keep the load balanced.

The majority of trips are around 20 minutes, which is about the same as the average trip length on any bike trip. Since most schemes give you the first 30 minutes for free to encourage high turnover, the vast majority of trips are free for users after paying a membership fee (typically around $50 a year).

With results like this, why bother with a bikeshare scheme?

First of all, even if it is existing cyclists using the system, this means that bikeshare is providing a valued service that is superior to riding your own bike for some riders. I spoke with three users of the system in DC, all of whom mentioned that their bikes had been stolen. They hadn’t gotten a new bike yet and decided that it was easier to use bikeshare than to worry about theft and storage of their own bike. In other words, it got some riders back on a bike who might have otherwise not bothered to continue riding. Of course, this also points to the need for better parking and storage for bicycles to prevent theft and to avoid the hassle of getting a bike in and out of your apartment.

Secondly, we need to focus on how bikesharing can be integrated most effectively with mass transit. Only NextBike in Germany is operating as a private business. All other systems operate as some form of public-private partnership (typically advertising financed) or are fully managed by the public sector as essentially a cheap form of mass transit. Bikeshare should work hand in hand with existing transit agencies so that the bikeshare solves the “last mile” problem. This means locating bike stations (or incentivizing floating system users) so that bikes are easily available near stations. It will also mean integrating fare collection systems and route planners so that bikeshare is connected seamlessly to transit options. Transit operators will also need to be  integrated into schemes to ensure connectivity between systems.

Systems should come down in cost and eliminate waste. There is no reason that half of operating costs should be spent on redistribution. We need experimentation in incentivizing end users to do the redistribution using innovative pricing schemes and mobile technology rather than contributing to CO2 and congestion by driving bikes around on trucks. Some of the more innovative systems in Germany like NextBike and Call-A-Bike have done away with parking stations entirely, which also brings down start-up costs and changes the game on redistribution. Given that most trips are commute trips, why move them back to the periphery after the morning rush hour when they will only be needed again in the center in the evening?

It is a dirty little secret that for $50 a year, you basically have a free bicycle while maintaining the appearance that it is a pay-per-use system is brilliant. Since the fee structures rise dramatically after 30 minutes and the system has all your identity and billing information attached to the rental, it also discourages abuse. However, some people may decide to opt out thinking that they will get stuck paying high fees if they ride longer. Also, some users do get stuck with high fees because they don’t understand the tiered pricing model and may get scared off after a big bill. Marketing should be more clear to ensure people know how little they will likely be spending. The revenue generation should be primarily elsewhere, as it mainly is now, such as advertising,  tourism and subsidies.

Perhaps the most important piece of all of this development is that bikesharing seems to lend legitimacy and visibility to bicycling. Having a fancy high-tech system of brightly colored bikes locked up on racks around the city seems to make people suddenly recognize that bikes are a real part of the transportation system, giving cycling more political power. Plus, none of these systems can truly function without good infrastructure. Once biking is institutionalized as a state run transit operation, suddenly the city seems to feel more responsible for providing safe bicycling infrastructure for all cyclists.

It is still the early days for bikesharing and we are still trying to figure out what value such systems can have. With continual innovation, we can develop a robust system that can make biking appeal to more people, garner political acceptance and support for cycling, integrate with and improve mass transit, and push for improved conditions for all cyclists.

Some comments on the Velib bikeshare

I have been updated as to a couple of interesting posts about the much touted Velib bike share system in Paris from some local users. They are a bit old but still interesting. This one is about the experience of using it and some of the challenges. This next one is some rather tongue-in-cheek suggestions for how to improve the system. Happy reading and thanks for the links!