I’m back in Oxford for the weekend (
again), and I’ve got my laptop charger back, so with a fully-charged laptop I can now write blog posts again. Yay!
Oxford has a few dockless bicycle-sharing schemes, at my last count there were three, along with Oxonbike which is local, and docked. I’m curious about these schemes, so here are some observations.
Bikes are generally unique. Pick any 100 bicycles off the road and you’re unlikely to find two exactly the same. There’s a large enough variety of manufacturers, and any sufficiently old bike will have its own cobbled-together modifications: replacement handlebars, new pedals, different seat, etc. And the effect of that is that each bicycle is more or less unique to its owner. Every cyclist in turn is naturally attuned to the handling of their bike, you get a feel for the weight and centre of gravity, effectiveness of the brakes, turning ratio.
The concept of a single mass-produced bicycle doesn’t seem to have taken hold in the UK. The nearest I can think of is Brompton, which according to their website, manufactures 45,000+ foldable bicycles a year. China has precedent with the Flying Pidgeon bicycle. Over the period of its mass production it became the most produced vehicle ever, at 500 million bicycles. I have travelled around China a bit, and while you do see these bikes from time to time, they’re not as ubiquitous as their history suggests, I don’t know what happened to them.
I think these bike-sharing projects will tend towards monopoly, and that means that somewhere in the future is a single cheap mass-produced bicycle, or at least three or four standard designs. Take Mobike for example, in January 2017 they were producing 10,000 bicycles per day in China. In March 2017 they had an estimated 1 million+ bikes in China. China is one thing, but those (mo-)bicycles are arriving in European cities. With the massive investments in the One-Belt-One-Road freight rail network, bicycles can be delivered from China to Europe relatively rapidly and in large quantities. Oxford has already received 1,000 of them, and the supply is plentiful, there’s no reason to think it’ll stop there.
The future implications for cyclists (and to a lesser extent, car drivers) are clear: instead of owning your means of transportation, you will rent it from the platform. Oxford has the second-highest concentration of regular cyclists, behind Cambridge. So consider your average Oxbridge student, for many their first-year rites-of-passage will involve buying a bicycle. However, an increasing proportion of students will now opt to rent instead. I’ve even seen this at my old secondary school, where there’s a small pile of dockless bikes heaped outside the entrance. For the individual student, renting presents advantages in terms of convenience, and it might even be cheaper to rent than to buy. On the other hand, collectively it represents a shift in which control is handed over to the corporation.
There are other knock-on effects on Oxford too. If you count them off, there are nine small/local bicycle shops in the town, one co-operative repair workshop, two Halfords and a large Cycle King on Cowley road. There’s a little economy here around putting second-hand bikes back into circulation, and keeping current bicycles well-repaired. Bike shops may not pay too well, but they do provide a sort of skilled employment, they redirect money into the local economy, and they perform a socially-useful service. If we’re not careful Oxford risks losing that.
There’s also a small movement of people coming to Oxford, parking their cars in our street, and walking or cycling the relatively short distance into the centre. In this way some areas of the city are turned into unofficial park-and-ride stations. There was even a brief flare-up where the people coming in from outside campaigned (successfully?) against the introduction of parking restrictions. It’s annoying but basically tolerable if it’s only a case of one or two cars, however the introduction of dockless bicycles facilitates their behaviour. Previously someone would have to go to the effort of attaching a bicycle to their car, whereas now it’s more convenient if there happens to be a dockless bike present in the street already.
Maybe this isn’t a very obvious effect, but a few of those little changes could build up over time. For another similar example, we can look forward to intensified competition for access to electric car charging stations. At the moment there aren’t enough electric vehicles around for newly-introduced charging points to cause problems, but the seed of a problem is there. We ought to anticipate these trends before they bring unexpected consequences.
A lot of the discussion so far I’ve seen people complaining about the effect of dockless bike parking on public space. Particularly around use of pavement space. Putting aside for one moment motorists who are opposed to bicycles on principle, there seems to be a division around the question of parking as a public good. The local authorities provide bicycle parking as a matter of normal infrastructure the same way they build lampposts and benches, and these are to be enjoyed by the general public at large. The attitude changes however when public parking spaces are taken up en-masse by a private corporation. Take it even further to ambiguous parking practices, such as individuals attaching their bikes to lampposts and railings. This is more or less acceptable in some areas, but would not be acceptable if it were the systematic work of a single group which threatens to monopolise the space.
I think it’s useful to have that discussion about space, with the caveat that bicycle parking takes up a minuscule amount of space in proportion to cars. It’s also a discussion which wouldn’t be half as important without pressure on bicycle parking space in the centre. If the only simple solution to the problem would be to just install more bike racks everywhere, I would be happy with that.
My last observation is that shared bikes herald a shift in the relationship between the cyclist and their bicycle. The incident which prompted me to write this was seeing people dump their bikes by the side of the road, and it caused me to look twice because I wasn’t used to seeing someone get off their bike, throw it down and walk away. They were treating the bicycles as disposable objects, like trash. All the facets of rationalisation now find themselves reflected in the shared bicycle: it is uniform, mass-produced, convenient, cheap, and efficient. And that felt completely strange to me because I hadn’t really thought of cycling as an alienated, de-personalised mode of transport before.