The mission was a lunchtime errand at the other end of the CBD. The options were: walking (too warm, too far), tram (no ticket) or ride. My bike was locked-up downstairs but I could try one of those blue bikes in a rack just down the street. So, why not?
Off I went to the vending machine for a fairly straightforward rental process, except for the terms and conditions. Kudos to anyone who can honestly say they've stood there and read through all 72 screens.
Next I was given a six-digit code and told to use it to release the bike I wanted. It took me a sec to work out where to tap in the code at the bike (I was looking for a standard 10-digit PIN pad) until I noticed that my code was made up of 1s, 2s and 3s, and that there are three numbered buttons on the rack beside each bike. (Too late I also noticed the helpful diagram on the ticket I'd printed.) Tapped in the number, yanked the bike free and I was away.
Right, what can this jalopy do? First test was to see how it drops off the kerb onto the road. Not bad, and so it should be on such a sturdily built bike.
The bikes seem to be built equally to sustain some rough handling from legit users and to resist casual assault by late-night drunken vandals. What you get is a comfortably long wheelbase, a step-through frame, three widely-spaced gears in the hub, hub brakes, and a big-arse seat that seems to have been modelled on a Spear & Jackson Number 3 shovel.
The whole construction has a heavy-duty feel to it, but the ride itself is OK. This is definitely a bike for cruising on: the very upright sitting position and a top gear that left me spinning faster than I'd prefer encouraged one to kick back and relax a bit. (And was it true? Were cars giving me a bit more space because I was pootling along on a 'tourist' bike?)
I share James May's scepticism about bike share schemes that:
by being yoked to the rack system, the bicycle, this ultimate symbol of mobility and freedom for the masses, effectively becomes public transport: it doesn't leave from precisely where you are and doesn't arrive at exactly where you want to be. Unless you work as a bicycle rack attendant, the very point of the bicycle is somewhat defeated.
But as there were racks in a straight line between where I started and where I wanted to go, there seemed little to be lost by giving it a go: at least it's public transport that's punctual and arrives exactly when I want it to. Unless there are no free spaces at the destination rack… A check of the Melbourne Bike Share Station map showed that there was a single spare slot at the rack I was heading for. If that single space were taken when I arrived, I faced an uphill ride, taking me out of my way, to the nearest alternative racks. Fortunately I was in luck (there were actually two spare spaces when I arrived) and my first bike share ride was not marred by an enforced detour.
So who needs bike share? As a regular bike commuter, I don't. It was fun to take a blue bike for a spin, and I might do it again but I don't feel a pressing need to do so. It's just as easy (and free) for me to use my own bike to get about town for short trips.
Although Melbourne has a serviceable short-trip public transport system in its trams, the share bikes may well find a niche serving a similar need. And I have noticed the popularity of the blue bikes with bike path trundlers, heading out well beyond the cluster of bike share stations, so there's obviously some appeal there.
I hope the bike share scheme turns out to be successful, not because I or any other regular cyclist needs it, but for benefits such as:
- it lowers the barrier of entry for people to try urban cycling (Who knows? They may like it and take to cycling more generally),
- it puts more bikes on the road, normalising bikes for transport and bolstering the 'safety in numbers' effect (if you happen to subscribe to that view), and
- it's just a great way for visitors to get around and see the city.
Failure is always an option
For all of these reasons and more, I truly hope the bike share is a long-running success story. My concern is that our mandatory helmet laws will end up scuttling the bike share scheme. How sustainable is it for the scheme to subsidise helmets sold in nearby shops? And to what extent does the need to find, buy or bring a helmet discourage people from the spontaneous freedom of just taking a bike and going? (I have overheard people standing at the racks say, "You need a helmet? Well, let's not bother.")
And while I don't believe bike share primarily benefits regular cyclists, it is we who will bear the brunt if it does go down the gurgler. For years afterwards, it would be used by the opponents of cycling to beat up on cycling lobbyists and cyclists in general, because all that public money got wasted on a 'cycling white elephant'—even though regular urban cyclists didn't ask for it or need it.
So, let's hear it for bike share. As someone might have said, may it live long and proper.
72 pages of terms of conditions? Or is that hyperbole?
Larochelle, France has a great eco-transport system as well as bike-share program since 1976. http://ecomobility.tv/2011/01/20/avant-green-transportation/
Apart from the obvious issue of having to wear a helmet in order to ride these bikes the other real issues is their deployment and the management of the scheme. Why is the RACV (A Car oriented organisation) overseeing the roll out of Melbourne's Token Bike share program?
Some comments received on our blog
Melbourne Cyclist said...
For the cost of one year's Grand Prix we could have 6,000 bikes or 40 years of the bike share 600 bicycle program. The main problem is the location of the bikes. the Botanical Gardens should have bikes available at three locations. Near the Observatory (Gate O), Gate D and Gate A. Toorak Road and Punt Road and the Alfred Hospital would also be good sites as well as St. Kilda pier. At an estimated 13,000 trips per month the government is paying over 0.00 a trip subsidy on top of the hire fee. They could provide free inner city travel on public transport. March 20, 2012 12:29 PM
Thanks for our comment. You would think the zoo would be another location where they would have bike share stations. Whoever designed and manages the system should be sacked. Looks like they are creaming the system for what it is worth. Daily station stats on the take up would be interesting. There is no reason why the RACV should withhold this information. It should be discoverable under FOI. March 20, 2012 12:42 PM
Visit Melbourne said...
Try visiting a couple of Melbourne's tourists destinations using the bike share scheme. A group of say 10 people wanting to visit Captain Cook's Cottage, The Old Melbourne Jail, The Royal Exhibition Buildings, the Zoo, the Botanical Gardens and back to Federation square. You can forget the zoo, The Old Melbourne Jail, The Botanical Gardens and Captain Cook's Cottage as there is no bike share station nearby. Where there is a station there is not enough spare docking stations to allow you to dock the bikes.