Cycle-less in Seattle

The recent failure of the bicycle hire scheme in Seattle has highlighted the issues of what defines a successful scheme, once seen as the de rigueur approach for mayors in the big cities following New York, London and Paris.

So what exactly do these schemes do? The vision seems to be one of reducing traffic jams, creating a greener city, and helping support a population with better health. However. what seems a simple proposition at the individual level, takes on added complexity and cost when ramped up to a large city scale. Bikes themselves aren’t that low cost, they need maintenance, they need replacing when they get lost, stolen or misused, they need moving around to fit patterns of use, and they need a simple system to use them which can be complex behind the scenes. Plus if it all goes wrong, people are then put off and become reluctant to use the scheme again.

While there has been a “me-too” adoption of such schemes by major cities, some seem to be a success, others like Seattle seem to fail. So is the concept flawed? At first view you might expect that anyone who wants to cycle will already have their own cycle, and that these cyclists might demand things like secure bike parks and safer roads, which are cycle-friendly, rather than cycle hire, especially as these cycles seem to of the “heavier and slower” variety.

Alternatively, “novice” cyclists will be more reliant on dedicated leisure routes, well away from negotiating city-centre traffic, to be safe and enjoy their ride. It’s no use just having stacks of cycle and no safe routes to ride them, so a cycle hire scheme needs to include some degree of supporting infrastructure. And it seems that it is this wide variety: of users, of needs, that make a successful cycle hire scheme so difficult to achieve. 

The other issue on assessing such schemes is that they can be hard to measure, how do you measure the impact of improved health and enjoyment? So are such schemes mere planning indulgences and wasted taxpayers money?

Any cultural social change requires high investment, similar changes in behaviour have required massive investment and financial support, such as renewable energy schemes, and currently investment in electric cars and driverless schemes. To make these step-changes in behaviour requires considerable investment, probably over a longer period of time than many “sponsors” (of cycle hire schemes) realise with their two or three-year funding platforms. So when the funding stops, or is considerably reduced, the scheme collapses. That doesn’t equate to it not being a success though!

No-one wants full cycle racks and few users, maybe for some the numbers just don’t add up and aren’t sustainable, and while low tech does not equal low costs, there are exemplary models of successful schemes. And besides in Europe, we have Centre Parcs, who for many years have provided a cycle hire scheme at their leisure holiday parks, they seem to make it a success. And you don’t need to wear a helmet.

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