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Local authorities and operators ask DfT for more powers to control bikeshare

Regulation or responsibility? Sustainable transport or data science? And, of course, the C-word....

Juliana O'Rourke
05 February 2018


The Department for Transport (DfT) Bike Share masterclass, held last week in Leicester, saw local authorities and operators alike give the DfT a strong heads-up that, in future, some kind of bike share licensing framework may be needed in England. Whilst agreeing that voluntary codes of conduct and signing up to the Bikeplus accreditation scheme are working for now, with the co-operation of the current players operating in the UK, there is no guarantee that less co-operative operators won't seek to place their bikes in English cities in future without seeking agreeable terms with the relevant local authority. As things stand, there is very little that the local authority can do to prevent them, or to limit the total number of operators they wish to accommodate in their city.

This was a key issue raised by local authorities. While they may be able to use the various rules and regulations currently in their toolkits to impose some control over how bike-share operators behave on their streets, they can't, at present, prevent them from setting up in the first place. All of the operators taking part in the Masterclass (Hourbike, nextbike, Ofo, Urbo and Mobike) declared that they would never impose themselves on a local authority's streets without prior agreement, and that they will sign up to the Bikeplus accreditation, but there may well be other players eying this potentially lucrative market. While Rupert Furness, Head of Active and Accessible Travel at the DfT, said that primary legislation on bike share was 'unlikely' given the amount of parliamentary time that Brexit is eating up, he did agree to take the strong feelings shared during the day back to his team and look at how the DfT can strengthen local authority positions in this area.

'Voluntary agreements only work until they don't' was a mantra heard through the day, but given context by the fact that oBike has already withdrawn its bike from Oxford's streets, said a spokesperson, 'as we want to make sure we keep to the standards of operations as signed in the code of conduct with the Council'. 

More powers needed?

In the meantime, local authorities are experimenting with various ways to keep tabs on bike share operators. Under the Highways Act 1980, they have the power to act if bicycles are causing an obstruction or nuisance on local roads or pavements. While they have no specific powers to regulate bike-share schemes in their area, they are using bylaws and street trading regulations to supplement the voluntary codes. But there was clear evidence on the day that while dockless bike share is perceived positively by local authorities as having the potential to deliver great benefits, they are increasingly wary about their lack of control.

While most cycle advocates have welcomed the advent of dockless bikes, there are those who differ pointedly. Mikael Colville-Andersen of Copenhagenize, for example, who tweeted that: #dockless #bike-share is the greatest threat to our cherished public space. Space so limited after decades of car centric planning. Not to mention that selling your data is the goldmine. Stop the nonsense...'

The C-word (clutter) was repeatedly mentioned, despite pleas from some in the room to avoid referring to potentially useful items such as bikes in this manner, while pointing out that the real 'clutter culprits' in our cities are cars, not bikes. Dockless bikes blocking pavements and driveways is, potentially, a real problem, but one that we are are already living with on a much greater scale with cars – which no-one seems to mind. 

Several delegates noted that regulation and accreditation is a ‘red herring’ and risks stifling innovation, especially if it is over-prescriptive. Apart from one London Borough, dockless systems have not (yet) cluttered the streets, and Oxford is coping with at least three providers. But it was also stated that most English dockless bike share scheme pilots are still relatively small in scale, and when  – and if – scaled up to the levels needed in order to make a real difference to a city's transport system, that we might be facing a very different scenario.

Sustainable transport players or data owners?

Another key question asked by delegates of bike share operators was whether they regarded themselves as sustainable transport players or data scientists. All present responded by saying that they would never sell-on customer data for profit, but were less clear about what data they actually capture, what they plan to do with it and what they plan to share, openly or otherwise. One operator noted that they actually capture far less data than people assume, and suggested that this area of practice will need to be developed if bike share data is ever to become really useful – either for operators looking to monetise data, or for local authorities. Oliver O’Brien, a Senior Research Associate at  University College London and creator of the Bike Share map has commented that some of the London's dockless operators use his map for info on rebalancing their fleets!

It was also noted that in order to be useful to cities and local authorities, aggregated bike sharing data needs to be open. Publicly-funded schemes such as London's Santander cycles already share open data, but it's not at all clear what the policy of the investor-backed dockless companies is in this area. As one industry report suggested: 'What attracts investors is the integration of rental services with the Internet or mobile Internet, such as GPS and mobile payment.' But monetisation is far from easy. The Open Data Institute (ODI) has done much to highlight what's involved in here. 'Data isn’t a magic bullet,' the ODI's Head Of Policy, Peter Wells, has written. 'Data monetisation is not a clever strategy for these companies,' he says. 'That isn’t only because their users might prefer the data to be used to benefit their community but also because their users are carrying the smartphones that they used to get the bike. Google, Apple, and the telecoms operators have similar trip data. It has negligible value.... instead, bike sharing companies should open up the data to improve the service.

'Many transport authorities already publish open data about congestion, accidents and road closures,' says Wells. 'Google, Uber and Strava publish aggregated open data about usage of their platforms for car and bicycle transport. By making this data openly available then everyone can improve the service that is provided to car drivers, taxi passengers and cyclists. Openness is essential. If the bike sharing companies all publish aggregated data about where their bikes are left, then decision-making can be further improved.'

Future business models

Future business models for bike share were also discussed. Bike share operators make money from a mixture of (potentially) capturing and / or selling data on their users (which we've already mentioned and which they all denied, despite many having a note in their terms and conditions that they may share personal information with third parties), collecting deposits and membership fees, advertising, sponsorship, venture capital funds and investors. Another idea is a crowdsourced logistics, suggests The Economist, asking riders to carry along packages in exchange for free rides or a small payment. Mobike in China already incentivises users to move its bikes around to high-demand areas by offering 'red envelopes' worth a few yuan. Advertising on wheels or rider's back (a la Buzzbike) is also a possible avenue, as is offering digital coupons for shops on a rider’s route. Mobike works with McDonald’s and, an e-commerce company, to do just that in China, says the The Economist.

In the UK, oBike moved to a new business model in December 2017; the Global Business Partnership Programme (GBPP), in order to localise operations and 'tap into local expertise and experience'. The GBPP is already successfully running in countries including France, Italy, Germany and Spain, says oBike. Here in the UK, we are currently in conversations with potential partners.' While discussions are ongoing, oBikes have been removed.

Integration and incentives

The other key issues explored during the Masterclass was integration and incentives to get bike share to homes, employment sites, schools and other amenities. It was noted that nowhere in the UK is there an example of a bike share integrated with metro/bus/train hub and working between a key site of employment such as a business park or university campus.

The 'door to door' Netherlands OV Fiets system works in this way, with users able to use season ticket to hire bicycles from many locations including include train stations, bus and metro stops, town centres and P+R sites. Santa Monica City Council in the USA is also implementing a sub-regional bike share system that will allow users to travel between regional transit systems with one existing account. So while both docked and dockless schemes look set to have a very positive future in the UK – and all operators agreed that hybrid schemes featuring docked, dockless and e-bikes (once the re-charging issue is solved) are likely to be the future, with a maximum of three operators in larger cities / regions, and one in smaller towns.

So while it was noted that adherence to voluntary codes of conduct and signing up to Bikeplus accreditation (which will be further developed following the Masterclass) is working well in the UK (although not so well in many cities in Europe), there is a very real danger of less scrupulous operators coming to the UK. With this in mind, we look forward to a timely response from the DfT and Bikeplus on these key issues, and hope that we move towards a framework that gives more protection to both local authorities and cities alike.

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