Who would criticise the idea of a bike-sharing programme? No one, that’s who. We’re all for anything that gets people active and doesn’t contribute to urban traffic congestion. The recent explosion of such programmes, typically supported by local governments, is nothing short of amazing and another sign that disruptive ideas and technologies have a place in the search for solutions to the gridlock that too often defines city life.
At the same time, however, we are beginning to see the limitations of what is still a good idea, just with drawbacks that prevent it from becoming the ideal transport option in high-density areas.
First of all, to point out the obvious, it’s impossible for the docking stations to adequately meet everyone’s needs in terms of convenient access. Especially in large cities, organisers can deploy a number of bikes that looks quite impressive on paper but is still plainly inadequate when it comes to placing a docking station within a reasonable distance for residents in various districts.
Take a look at this map of the location of London’s “Boris Bikes”. Again, we love the idea and we love these pics but the map clearly shows that the bikes are very much concentrated in central London, with about 80% of them north of the Thames. What if your daily commute doesn’t take you near one of the docking stations? What then?
Even if you have a docking station right outside your window, that’s no guarantee that a bike will be there when you need it. There are surges in demand at certain times and if you’re among the crowd that causes that spike, you could be left waiting until someone returns a bike that you can take.
Bikes are redistributed at night but the fact that this is necessary shows that it’s simply not possible to perfectly optimise docking stations in a way that will ensure that you’ll have access to a bike when you need one. There are dramatically different levels of demand for bikes in different areas but bike distribution is often not aligned with that demand due to political considerations. Bike-sharing schemes that are publicly funded tend to lean more towards a compromise between demand and a more even geographic distribution that is independent of the location of likely users. This will randomly work out well for some and not so well for others. If you’re on the wrong end of this outcome, the bike-sharing scheme will have diminished value for you.
The fact is that, despite the virtues of bike-sharing programmes and the benefits they bring in terms of reducing congestion and emissions, you still need easy access to a docking station with a bike waiting for you if you want to get to where you need to go.
Many cities are starting to see another unfortunate side effect of bike sharing—piles of bikes cluttering car parks, entrances to tube stations and other high-traffic areas. The introduction of private vendors into many markets is showing that you can have too much of a good thing. These businesses often do not use docking stations at all, which has resulted in some metro areas being flooded with bikes that end up in tangled masses of metal, blocking walkways and sometimes ending up in some very strange places.
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