Why we should support the roll-out of share bike schemes

Most days when I'm heading in for my noon start at work, I go past a gaudy group of share bikes standing in an area designated for motorcycle and bicycle parking.

When I go by again in the evening, most if not all of the bikes have gone.

With all the controversy surrounding the dockless bike schemes that have been implemented in Australia since the middle of last year, I always enjoy this little reminder that, away from the headlines, people are quietly getting along with using the system and reaping the benefits.

As someone who is fascinated by all iterations of two-wheeled travel, I've been watching bike share implementation with great interest. Here are a few observations.

Transport options

To me, the absolute best thing about the rollout of share bike systems is their potential to increase cycling activity – and especially, transport and utility cycling. In Australia, riding a bike is too often associated with sport – buying a racing bike, wearing specific gear and going on a long, sweaty, gruelling expedition.

Of course, you can cover goodly distances on share bikes (three blokes managed overnight) but their best strength lies in short and often spontaneous trips, perhaps to supplement or replace other transport options. 

The bright-hued bikes have arrived as  has recorded a general decline in cycling participation in Australia in recent years. If they are here to stay, it'll be interesting to see what effect they might have on cycling statistics.

Dockless v docked

Bike share systems have been round for more than a decade, but it's the technology that has changed.

London, New York, Paris and other cities that have engineered a share bike boom have done so through systems in which bikes are secured at bespoke docking stations when not in use. (Such schemes are also found in Melbourne and Brisbane.)

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But Australia's new arrivals are unlocked by a phone app – and while they are immobilised for riding when not in use, they can still be moved. 

There are, of course, pros and cons to both options. While docked bikes are more easily corralled and monitored, they require additional technology, especially at the stations, which can themselves be controversial due to space requirements.

While the new programs are run by private operators, investment in docked bike schemes is often borne by the public purse – in Brisbane, the CityCycle scheme has cost ratepayers nearly , while last year the Victorian government to continuing Melbourne Bike Share.

Meanwhile, docked bike systems are limited by the location and dispersal of the stations, and usually focus on inner-city travel, while app-operated systems can create their own networks organically, through user experience.

Vandalism and obstruction

Without a doubt, the share bike issue that has grabbed the most headlines has been bike vandalism.

Social media and news reports have abounded with images of bikes that have been formed into piles, tossed into rivers, suspended from trees or perched on buildings and other structures.

Is it a fait accompli that a system that relies on societal order is doomed to fail in Australia due to the actions of a few? Or have the bikes been targeted largely because of their novelty value, and acts of vandalism will steadily decrease as the perpetrators grow bored of it?

Bikes can also be placed unthinkingly or fall over, blocking pedestrian access. It can be annoying, yes, but here's an idea – if you see a such a situation, and you have the ability, maybe just pick the bike up or move it out the way?

Meanwhile, just how offensive is the sight of a bicycle standing unaccompanied alongside a footpath or on a suburban nature strip?

It surely depends on the eye of the beholder. It's worth noting that dockless share bike companies favour bright colours– such as yellow, orange and red – to help make their steeds both recognisable and locatable. But is it something we'll get used to over time? 

A shared future

So what does the future hold for share bikes in Australia? It's fair to say we are in an experimental phase, with companies testing their approach as they vie for customers.

There is also the issue of regulation. In Sydney, six councils have drawn up , and are due to meet operators next month to discuss ongoing implementation, while in Melbourne, three councils signed a with oBike last year in a bid to "improve safety and amenity".

It's hard to predict how the systems might fare in the future. Maybe they will be disadvantaged – or aided – by new rules, and not all operators may survive, especially in multi-company Sydney.

But ultimately, these bike share schemes represent an opportunity to get more people onto bikes, an activity that benefits individuals as well as the community – and as such, they are worth supporting.

Fairfax journalist Michael O'Reilly has written the On Your Bike blog since 2011.

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