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Bike share: reaching people who could cycle, but don’t

Alistair Kirkbride writes in Local Transport today

Mobility Matters 11 November 2016

The bicycle is an incredible invention. It’s a social leveller, the second cheapest mode (after walking), leads to healthier people and cuts congestion and emissions. There are also still far more bikes in the world than cars. Rather than being displaced by the internal combustion engine, the humble bike is busy reinventing itself as an increasingly important component of future travel and future lifestyles.



Whilst there must be access for those who cannot walk or cycle, active travel has to be top of the list for planning local access. This year has seen the Government publish its Value of Cycling report, and the draft Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy. The case for cycling has never been better made.


But cycling is not one uniform activity. There are distinct bike-related cultures in the UK. People riding bikes as utility vehicles and the lycra-clad cycling devotee. From a professional point of view, they seem more like separate species linked at the bike-shaped genus level – maybe cyclum communalis vs cyclum individualis.


How do we reach out to those who might cycle, but don’t? Or those who don’t consider it an option, but could? In short, how do we cultivate the delicate flower that is cyclum communalis or, in transport speak, encourage a modal shift to cycling?


Bike share is an important tool for reaching this group. It consists of mainly public bike hire schemes such as those in London, Liverpool and Glasgow, and also includes bike pools in workplaces or communities and bike hire from rail stations.


A key market for public bike share schemes is people making first or last-mile links with public transport hubs. Many of these people have one or more bikes at home, but they either do not want or can’t use their own bikes for these journeys. This alone probably justifies public bike hire becoming a norm in all urban areas.


Public bike share also reaches a different demographic: people who might cycle but don’t. The most recent research for Transport for London shows that 38% of users were prompted to start cycling by Santander Cycles.


Giving people the option of an electric bike opens access to bikes further. This is not a new idea. Bike share and electric bikes (plus leisure cycling) were all recognised as significant agents in expanding the reach of cycling through the DfT’s Cycle Demonstration Towns, in the latter stages of Cycling England’s work and through the initial results from the Finding New Solutions programme.


Both bike share and electric bikes remove significant known barriers to cycling. Bike share provides access to bikes with no commitment or need for investment or maintenance. Electric-assist bikes ‘iron out’ hills, encourage novice cyclists to give cycling a go, as well as encouraging cycling for longer distances. Whilst these benefits are concrete and obvious, their real value is more subtle and is reflected in the joyful reactions as people try an electric-assist bike for the first time.


The anecdotes are supported by the initial findings of the DfT-funded Shared Electric Bike Programme to be published shortly. In addition, the recent Cycleboom project shows impressive physical and mental health impacts of older people using electric bikes. This highlights an otherwise elusive win; health benefits in a non-traditional cycling user group. In short, people riding electric bikes without having to purchase one were happier and healthier. Scaling this up by making electric bikes available through various bikeshare models would be incredibly simple to do.


A big challenge in “cycling” is in normalising it in the public mind. This requires a change in people’s attitudes to cycling – which we are seeing happening – and then this translating to a shift in individual’s behaviours.


For bike share, it requires planners, policy-makers, advisers, fleet managers and communities to be aware of what’s possible, how to make it work and what the impacts are likely to be. It also requires some re-framing of language and approach – it’s about investing in health benefits, accessibility, social inclusion and reductions in congestion and emissions rather than subsidising a bike hire scheme.



Bike share history is peppered with failed schemes, but these are confined to history as the sector has learnt the secrets to success. New schemes are being added to the tally all the time; Milton Keynes and Exeter made it a total of 17 this year, with Cardiff and Brighton currently in procurement and Manchester in the research phase.


For electric bikes, people just need the opportunity to try one. Try-out sessions plus electric bikes available in bike share and bike pools and some form of personal introduction get people smiling. More importantly in the current agenda, in some cases it gets people reaching for their wallets. Early evidence from the Shared Electric Bike Programme suggests that 15% of users went on to buy an ebike, and up to 80% would consider doing so. This explains why electric bike manufacturers are keen to partner huge hire schemes such as Movelo (Austria/Germany) and Flyer (Switzerland). Personal ownership of an electric bike is a good outcome of these bike share schemes as it locks in behaviour change.


However, many people cannot afford the cost of an electric bike. This means that there will be an enduring role for bike share systems to provide access for many. The University of Brighton Smart E-bike research participants reported that they would be more likely to continue cycling if they could continue to use an electric bike than if they had access to a normal cycle. They also said they would be much more likely to use the electric bike if they could borrow it rather than pay for their own.


The emerging UK evidence broadly agrees with studies carried out across Europe showing the potential for bike share and electric bikes to replace car trips either as solo modes or in conjunction with public transport. In Berlin, giving people access to electric bikes led to an impressive 50% modal shift from car commuter trips for distances of 5-15km. Watch this space for what can be replicated in the UK.


Looking to the future there is a compelling argument for bikes being available at transport hubs, destinations and hotels as the norm. This standard expectation would make a huge difference in making multi-modal door-to-door journeys a reality on a larger scale. It would build on initiatives such as the ATOC-led Plusbike initiative and Bike-and-Go hire from rail stations. Public bike hire in all cities plus bike pools in communities, workplaces and accommodation would also help to normalise bike use. Spreading out bike and electric bike availability would require more innovative partnerships to be developed with hotel chains and other tourism businesses as well as bike and electric bike manufacturers.


Perhaps the main difference between bike share and mainstream cycling is that bike hire is implicitly about multi-modal journeys and convenience – something in high demand in the modern world. In this respect, it’s an enabling part of the new mobility. In the shift to an increasing number of people building their own packages of transport services, the various models of bike share play an increasingly important and recognised component. And if cycling and bike share are currently separate species, the evidence is pointing firmly to one feeding the other. Let’s hope evolution makes the distinction extinct.


Read the article in LTT.


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