It’s more than 30 years ago since the Government deregulated the bus industry, opening up routes to competition. Deregulation sparked ‘bus wars’ on city streets as operators went head-to-head on the most lucrative corridors. Local authorities could do little but watch as this competition, with an often motley collection of vehicles, took place on their streets.
Competition still exists today but not on the scale or ferocity as seen in the late 1980s and 1990s. Yet the question of how much control councils have over what happens on their streets has returned in the form of dockless bike hire. The consensus seems to be that councils are powerless to prevent operators setting up schemes (the London Borough of Brent has used street licensing powers but we’re unaware of others following suit). Up until now, operators appear to have accepted that it’s in their interests to only establish schemes where councils want them. This now seems set to change, however, in London at least, where Mobike is preparing to launch across the capital whether boroughs like it or not.
Mobike’s change of approach stems from its frustration with London’s fragmented governance structures, with the road network owned by 33 different boroughs, not forgetting Transport for London. Negotiating with each borough for permission to launch a bike hire scheme is not only time consuming but it comes with no guarantee of success. And even if permission is granted, the rules attached by borough A may be different from those of borough B. All this leads to fragmented operations, which make no sense to users because borough boundaries are largely irrelevant to travel (and invisible too). The problems faced by the bike hire firms are what car club operators, particularly of the floating variety, have been grappling with for years.
Where Mobike leads, other bike hire operators may be tempted to follow. Which is why boroughs and TfL are now exploring introducing a byelaw to regulate schemes. This would require operators to gain the consent of a borough before launching a scheme, and give the borough the power to impose operating requirements. That may well fill bike hire operators with dread; but if a byelaw were to bring a harmonised set of rules for bike hire across the capital, might that be something they’d be happy to swallow?
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