“When a utopian cycle scheme was launched in Cambridge in 1993, all 300 machines were stolen on the first day; broken down for spares or shipped out by free marketeers quick to spot an opportunity.”
A lot has changed since the early days of the bike sharing economy, as described by Iain Sinclair.
Or has it?
In June 2017, Mobike launched a dockless bike sharing service in Manchester. The Guardian reported that within one month of the 1,000 bikes being introduced to the city, 50 were trashed beyond repair. This compares to just two reports of damaged locks a couple of months after 5,000 were introduced in Singapore.
Despite such setbacks (and questions about locals not understanding how to share), dockless bike sharing schemes seem to be here to stay and are rapidly expanding across cities all over the world, including Paris, Berlin and London.
So, what is the future of the bike sharing revolution? Will dockless schemes replace or complement more traditional docked bike schemes, such as London’s Santander Bikes? Can the growth of dockless bikes support higher residential densities? Will wider use reduce the needs for on-site cycle parking and enable ground floor parking areas to be liberated for alternative uses?
Bike sharing schemes are not a new concept. Most hotels, guesthouses and bike shops offer bike hire and have done so for many years; however, what is new is the scale and rapid growth of such schemes.
First championed in 2007 by the then Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, London’s cycle hire scheme was inspired by the success of the Velib network in Paris and was launched in 2010 by Boris Johnson (‘Boris-bikes’). With around 5,000 bicycles and 315 docking stations, the network has since been grown extensively. In London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s term so far, more than 11,500 bikes across 750 docking stations are provided – making a strong start in contributing to his goal of 80 per cent of all journeys in London being made on foot, by bike or using public transport by 2041.
Despite the expansion, the scheme is poorly represented outside travel zones 1 and 2, with noticeable gaps in south east London (including Peckham, Greenwich and Dulwich – all of which have no docking stations). Santander Bikes therefore seem to be most suited to supporting shorter trips in central London, rather than serving the needs of the majority of commuters.
Growth of dockless bike hire schemes
Clutter or convenience? Dockless bikes parked in LB Islington
However, popping up in boroughs outside central London, a wide array of dockless bike sharing schemes (including Mobike, Ofo, Urbo and Obike) are now starting to plug the bike sharing gap outside travel zones 1 and 2 – supporting more varied trips and daily commutes across the capital.
When launched, many of the boroughs affected were not consulted. Nevertheless, they have had to deal with the growth of such schemes, with some seeking to find a “common approach” to policing dockless bikes. Others (such as LB Hammersmith and Fulham) have removed bikes under highway obstruction notices and require that operators have a signed Memorandum of Understanding in place with the Council, before commencing operations (LB Ealing).
Let’s face it – no one wants to see bikes littered across pavements and cluttering the public realm, nor dumped in watercourses, hidden in back gardens or piled high ready to be recycled - not least TfL or the local authorities which have sought for many years to de-clutter our streets and improve residential amenity.
Schemes require users to be considerate and operators to manage the expansion of dockless bikes in a way that respects our communities and streets, considering the needs of wheelchair users and the visually impaired. TfL’s Code of Practice for dockless bike hire schemes aims to manage expansion, and encourages operators to engage with TfL and relevant highways authorities to promote safe, considerate and accessible cycle hire schemes. Penalties for inconsiderate parking and designated parking spots with geo-fencing technology are just some of the ways that considerate parking is being encouraged by operators.
Whilst it’s good that a number of local authorities are partnering with specific operators, there is potential for matters to become tribal, if a patchwork of different schemes emerge – which could create connectivity problems for users trying to cycle between boroughs partnered with different providers.
Unlocking higher densities and on-site cycle parking provision
With the Mayor’s push for higher residential densities in Outer London Boroughs and with many Opportunity Areas having poor public transport accessibility levels (PTAL), bike sharing schemes should be seen as be part of the answer, in supporting higher densities and unlocking the development potential of sites less well-served by public transport.
In London, density has long been underpinned by PTAL ratings (which do not take account of bike hire or sharing schemes). This is now starting to change through the design-led approach proposed in the Draft New London Plan and acknowledgement that “higher densities could be supported by maximising the potential of active transport” (para. 3.6.4). The benefits of active transport (i.e. walking and cycling) have been championed as one of the solutions to London’s housing crisis, with active transport accessibility levels (ATAL) promoted as an alternative methodology for underpinning density.
Such improvements to an area’s ATAL provide the opportunity to support and revitalise Outer London town centres, by facilitating retail and leisure trips between less well-connected areas and supporting the viability of non-residential and mixed-use developments by improving footfall.
Much like car sharing schemes, dockless bike sharing schemes could also be part of the answer when it comes to providing on-site cycle parking provision. Whilst seeking to ensure that everyone living in a new development is able to own a bike is a worthy goal, not everyone wants to/can afford to own one, but then again there are those that own more than one bike for different occasions.
Large areas of the ground floor and basements of residential developments are often set aside to provide secure cycle parking. Taking inspiration from the dockless bike sharing revolution, could development-specific bike sharing schemes provide a more efficient space-saving form of bike offering – reducing requirements for on-site cycle parking provision or, at the very least, reducing the vast amounts of dedicated cycle parking space required at ground floor level? In any case, such space is often not fully utilised, as residents prefer to take their bike(s) up to keep in their flats/on their balconies? Such innovative schemes could simultaneously free-up developable space that may be better-used for more active ground floor uses, whilst also providing a cycling option for those people who want to cycle but do not have their own bike.
The new London Plan needs to look forward to what is already happening literally on the Mayor’s doorstep.
At the moment there seems to be a huge momentum for dockless bike sharing in London, so it will be interesting see how the sector evolves and shapes our urban realm and schemes’ design (assuming the trend lasts). Whilst it remains to be seen how their growth could help unlock higher densities as a general principle, it is apparent that dockless bike sharing schemes are here to stay, widening transport options for those who can and want to get across cities on two wheels.
But I for one won’t be selling my bikes – okay, I have to admit I have three - just yet…
 Iain Sinclair, The Last London: True Fictions from an Unreal City, 2017