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Gearing up for a successful bike-sharing scheme

Done right, system will provide users with cheap and reliable point-to-point mobility

Every second, more than three bicycles are rented from Hangzhou's public bike-sharing scheme.

Called Hangzhou Public Bicycle, the scheme is one of the largest in the world, with over 70,000 bikes. Commuters use them for free for the first hour before returning them to any of the 3,000-plus terminals scattered throughout the city.

Each is used for about six unique trips a day - one of the highest turnovers globally, and a gold standard for others to strive towards, say experts. Since Hangzhou launched its scheme in 2008, many other cities have followed suit.

And Singapore is expected to join them soon.

The Ministry of Transport said last month that a pilot bike-sharing scheme will be launched in the Jurong Lake District next year, and could be expanded elsewhere. It is understood that other areas being considered include the Marina Bay area, Tampines and Pasir Ris.

The Sunday Times reported this week that the Land Transport Authority (LTA) has been looking for a sponsor to fund bike-sharing here - the latest lap in Singapore's car-lite push, which has been gaining momentum.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

Just this month, the Government announced plans for more bike parking at MRT stations, and told developers of new buildings and those set to be redeveloped to include amenities such as showers for cyclists.

But Singapore is no stranger to bike-sharing. There were two previous attempts - and both never caught on.

LEARNING FROM PAST MISTAKES

The first was called Town Bike, launched in 2000 by outdoor advertising company Capital City Posters, which ran the scheme and, in exchange, had free use of advertising panels in the four areas served - Bukit Batok, Bukit Gombak, Tiong Bahru and Tanjong Pagar.

Insurance company NTUC Income bought over the scheme in 2003. Members paid an annual fee of $12, and 50 cents for 30 minutes use of a bike. Each member was given a smart card to unlock each of the 200 bikes.

It folded four years later due to poor usage.

Car-sharing Association of Singapore president Lai Meng, who was then NTUC Income's head of business enterprise, said safe cycling infrastructure "just wasn't there at that time".

Similar issues also scuppered the bike-sharing scheme Isuda in one-north - the business and research park area in Buona Vista - just a year after it was launched in 2012 by avid cyclist Francis Chu. He wanted to allow commuters in the area to ride to their offices from nearby MRT stations.

"There was no safe and convenient route to use, pavements were too narrow and not convenient when there were pedestrians. On the roads, it was convenient but not safe," said Mr Chu, co-founder of cycling group Love Cycling SG.

Safe infrastructure is key, which is why bike-sharing would probably do well in towns with established networks, such as Tampines. But in the Marina Bay area, where cyclists have to jostle with office workers, the outlook might not be as rosy.

GO BIG OR GO HOME

A 2013 study on bike-sharing by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy lists several criteria behind successful bike-share schemes. These include:

•A dense network of bike-share stations, each spaced around 300m apart.

•Comfortable, commuter-style bicycles designed to deter theft.

•An automated locking system that allows bikes to be checked in and out easily.

•A tracking system that identifies a user and locates where a bicycle is picked up and returned. The system also monitors station occupancy rates, and feeds users this information in real time through their mobile phones or a website.

•A pricing structure that encourages short trips, to maximise daily turnover of each bike.

These schemes also connect origins and destinations well used by commuters, and have enough bikes and stations to provide users with practical point-to-point conveyance.

The expression "go big or go home" applies here. Countries that have started bike-share schemes tentatively and on a small scale have seen their projects fizzle out.

In 2008, Washington DC launched its Smartbike DC system with 120 bikes and 10 stations. It folded because it was poorly used - stations were too far apart and operating hours were limited.

Another potential issue is weight restrictions set to be imposed on bicycles soon.

Last month, the Transport Ministry accepted a list of recommendations on active mobility from an expert panel that, among other things, suggested that a 20kg weight limit be imposed on bikes used in public spaces. This was to reduce injuries in the event of a collision. The changes will likely be passed into law this year.

But two operators that have indicated interest in the LTA's coming bike-share tender have said that for bikes to be sturdy enough to resist theft and include features such as GPS sensors and smart locks, weight limits have to be set higher - about 25kg.

Some heavier systems have bikes equipped with on-board computers that allow them to be returned and locked anywhere along a pre-set route or zone instead of at fixed docking stations or terminals.

This could take pressure off the authorities, which might otherwise be locked in negotiations with developers hesitant to give up space for infrastructure like docking stations. A scheme like this was launched in Cologne last year, and has been well received.

But setting low weight limits here could mean systems like these would not be considered at all. Operators would have to make compromises.

OPERATING MODELS

Questions remain also on how the scheme would be run here. The LTA said it has been studying different operating models.

There are a myriad variations, but these commonly involve a private sponsor that would get naming rights and exposure, and a public or private operator that would run the scheme.

This is similar to bike-share systems in cities such as Paris, London and New York, said Dr Alexander Erath from the Singapore-ETH Future Cities Laboratory.

Sources said the LTA is looking for sponsorships of over $1 million a year to defray costs, which could run into the "tens of millions".

"Besides the initial investment in infrastructure, sharing systems generate considerable maintenance costs," said Dr Erath.

Choosing a suitable operator is also important, and in this case one of the existing public transport operators, such as SMRT or SBS Transit, could be a natural fit.

Their stations are natural destinations for commuters, and they already have the space for infrastructure like terminals and docking stations, and staff who can be on hand to assist.

An effective bike share system also increases the reach of their transit systems - filling the critical gap between MRT stations and homes.

Taipei's bike-share scheme YouBike helped boost trips by bike to about 6 per cent, up from 4 per cent in 2010. The city's government has said it will aggressively expand YouBike in hopes of doubling its cycling modal share to 12 per cent by 2020. In transport terms, this is a big improvement. Here, only about 1 to 2 per cent of trips are made by bike.

The scheme, if successful, could also herald a bicycle renaissance in Singapore.

The idea behind a successful bike-share system is a simple one - to give users a cheap and convenient form of point-to-point mobility, on demand, without the hassle of owning a bike.

Done properly, it will provide the same "there-when-you-need-it" reliability that cars have given drivers. No other alternative to the car functions on the same timetable as its user - even Uber, Grab and taxis will make commuters wait.

Over the years, cycling as a mode of transport has steadily picked up pace, but it is not quite seen as a legitimate option yet. This bike-share scheme could be the leap we need to get there.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 19, 2016, with the headline 'Gearing up for a successful bike-sharing scheme'. Print Edition | Subscribe