Wednesday 5 March 2014

Melbourne bike share is useful for tourists but not yet for most residents

Summary: Melbourne's bike share system requires mandatory helmet use, has only 51 docking stations and most of the city centre streets aren't very bike friendly, especially for inexperienced cyclists. Short-term visitors to Melbourne may find bike share a beneficial alternative for some trips (particularly outside the city centre) but for the majority of residents using your own bike, walking or public transport is currently more advantageous.

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by Jonny Brownbill

1. About Melbourne Bike Share
- Melbourne Bike Share has 600 bikes that can be rented from 51 docking stations around the city centre and some popular destinations close to the city. However, usage has been low compared to other bike share systems in cities around the world - primarily because of Australia's mandatory helmet laws (MHL). (See Further Info links below). There are less than 2,000 annual subscriptions though it launched in 2010 (New York had 25,000 annual subscriptions after one week) while the average daily use of each Melbourne bike is between 0.5 and 0.8 (one of the lowest in the world).

- The aim is to provide a transport alternative for short trips (less than 10km) to "workers, commuters, residents, students, and visitors to inner Melbourne" including for those catching public transport to inner city locations. See: Melbourne Bike Share - FAQ.

- Melbourne Bike Share's 51 docking stations are mostly concentrated around the city centre (central business district) and nearby locations at tourist destinations and Melbourne University. However, there are plans to expand it to neighbouring inner city suburbs like Fitzroy, Collingwood, Abbotsford and Richmond.

OObrien Melbourne Bike Share Map

- Docking stations can be found using smartphone apps for bike share systems. The best one for Melbourne Bike Share is Spotcycle. It shows free docks, available bikes, 7-Eleven stores to buy the $5 helmets, bike friendly routes and allows you to save favourite docks, routes and points of interest.

Spotcycle Bike Share App

2. Melbourne Bike Share summary advantages and disadvantages
- Below is a helpful summary list of potential advantages and disadvantages that may inform whether Melbourne Bike Share offers overall benefits for any of your inner city trips.

Potential Advantages
A docking station location is readily walkable from your home
You work in the inner city near a docking station and have trips to make of 1-3km to a location near another docking station
You live or work in an area which is harder or more time-consuming to access by public transport or walking
For these trips, you'd otherwise be spending much more per year on public transport or taxis than $56
If you commute to inner city train stations with docks you may find bike share useful for trips of 1-3km
You don't have undercover, secure bike parking if you commuted with your own bike
You currently take a lot of short taxi or tram trips which could be replaced by bike share use
The routes you can use for your MBS cycling trips are safe and efficient enough to suit your level of experience and confidence
Don't need to worry about theft, damage, weather effects or maintenance on your own bike
Using bike share is easier than getting your bike from its office/work location
The bike you own is too expensive or unsuitable to use in the inner city for certain trips (leaving parked for long periods or late at night)
You prefer cycling to walking or public transport and enjoy it more
If you couldn't cycle you wouldn't walk and hence cycling gives you extra exercise

Potential Disadvantages
Would need to carry a helmet from home to use the bikes before getting to work
Or would need to keep a helmet at your office and then carry it with you
If not carrying a helmet, cannot rely on efficient access to one being with a bike
If using the shared helmets need to get over hygience concerns
Lack of station density and bike capacity means you may often be trapped by the unavailability of one station
Free docks may be unavailable and could cause you to be late or go over the 30/45min limit
You may regularly need to ride around looking for a free dock
Helmets or bikes may be unavailable when you need them
The bikes may be too heavy, slow and dysfunctional for you to efficiently and enjoyable make your trip
Your trips are within the city centre (Hoddle grid), most of which is not bike friendly or enjoyable to ride
You are an inexperienced cyclist and not confident sharing roads with cars
There isn't yet a critical mass of users so not much "safety in numbers" or driver and pedestrian awareness
Using the bikes without an annual subscription is too much of a hassle and waste of time

3. Not currently superior for most residents getting to inner city locations
- An annual subscription costs $58/year and would provide 24/7 access assuming bikes were available at the stations you use. Annual subscriptions also entitle users to the first 45 minutes free rather than only 30 minutes. The swipe card that comes with an annual subscription makes the system much more convenient to use (assuming you solve the helmet issue by bringing your own or have reliable access via the free helmets that are provided with some bikes).

- Unfortunately, the current docking station locations are so limited in distribution they cover the needs of very few residents commuting between home and the city centre. Also, within most of the area covered by existing docking stations, walking, public transport or using your own bike would be more convenient options for the majority of Melbourne residents for most trips. Even if you commute to a city train station and then need to travel 2km to your work you will likely find walking (and possibly opportunistic use of trams) is almost as quick as using Melbourne Bike Share if it works well and quicker when it doesn't (unavailable helmets, bikes, docks).

- Most of the cycling infrastructure in the Melbourne city centre (CBD) is not very cycling friendly or efficient. There are few separated paths, the on-road bike lanes are narrow and not consistent, and cars cut across bike lanes or drive too close or too fast. Confident, experienced cyclists won't mind but inexperienced cyclists will likely consider it unsafe or unenjoyable. The helmet requirement is also a major hassle; no-one wants to carry a helmet around or leave it to chance every day whether a helmet will be available.

Melbourne Bike Share EOI - Current Movements: shows few are riding right in the city centre (Hoddle grid)

- However, if you are a resident that often does an inner city trip that is too far to walk and too inconvenient or expensive to use public transport for and there happen to be docking stations that are reliably available near the start and end, then it may be worthwhile to get an annual subscription. The "current movements" diagram above shows that many of these trips are 1-3km and often cover journeys that can't be done quickly by walking or public transport.

- Note that in some cities where bike share has proved very popular for some residents (e.g. New York, Paris) apart from the greater density and distribution of the docks, many residents live in apartments and it is a hassle to carry their bikes up and down and store them. Also, bike theft is a major problem in some cities and using bike share eliminates this disadvantage of using your own bike. However, in Melbourne both of issues (apartments, bike theft) are not major barriers to owning and using your own bike conveniently.

4. Potentially advantageous for visitors if you can manage the helmet issue
- Melbourne Bike Share currently is most suitable for short-term visitors to Melbourne who wish to get around multiple inner city locations, especially tourist destinations like museums, parks and sporting events. Most suited are visitors who prefer and enjoy cycling and can handle finding safe-enough routes and dealing with the hiring and docking process within 30min per trip.

- Some of the tourist destinations Melbourne Bike Share works reasonably well for are listed here: Explore Melbourne by Bike, but ignore most of the ones within the city centre grid as it's easier to walk to them. Riding in the city centre grid itself is not actually very pleasant on most current roads, you will find it much more enjoyable to walk, or if too far, catch trams. However, for tourist destinations on the edges of the city grid, on the safer bike paths, or too far away to walk easily (Albert Park, St Kilda, Beaches), bike share may be most advantageous.

- The docks outside the city centre grid (involving trips of 400m to 4km) are the ones most useful to plan tourist day trips around. Some of these routes (along the coast, Yarra river or near parks) are much more enjoyable to ride and you can cover much more ground in a day than by walking and public transport alone. I've marked up the docking stations on the Spotcycle map below which are most useful for tourists; for these destinations it is often quicker and more pleasant to get to them and explore around them by bike. Tourists may also use public transport to get to the best starting docking station or to get back from the furthest station ridden to (e.g. St Kilda).

Docking stations outside the Hoddle grid are the most useful for vistors

- In order to save money, you'll need to carefully keep trips under 30 minutes, so use the Spotcycle app (and timer function), keep an eye on bike/dock availability and use the bigger docking stations where feasible.

5. Tips on dealing with the mandatory helmet requirement
- The trial of leaving free helmets with bikes is now permanent so if you don't mind sharing a helmet (or wear it over a cap or beanie) you should be able to find some bikes with helmets. You are meant to leave the helmet with the bike when you dock it. See the instruction video here.

- To buy a $5 helmet from a 7-Eleven store, use the Spotcycle App to turn on the Helmet layer and find the nearest store. A web page list of locations is also here: Melbourne Bike Share - Helmets.

-. Mandatory helmet laws are enforced most strictly when there is a cycling rule compliance blitz on (a few times a year) or if Victoria's bicycle police are present (they enforce cycling rules). If police on foot are around on the look out to write fines then you may be at risk of a fine ($180), but often riders of Melbourne Bike Share bikes will be able to ride without a helmet and the chance of being stopped by police in cars is often low. The chance of being fined on an off-road path (e.g. Yarra River, Southbank, Beach path to St Kilda) is extremely low.

- So if prepared to risk a fine and you really don't wish to wear a helmet or it is too much of a hassle you don't have to strictly follow this law. As a tourist, you can also plead ignorance about the law if you do get stopped. If you are unlucky enough to receive a fine, do not pay it at the time - this isn't mandatory. You can decide later if you really wish to pay the fine or not (as a tourist, I wouldn't). See: When should urban cyclists wear a helmet?

Boris Johnson pleading ignorance about Melbourne's helmet laws

- Residents could leave a helmet in their city office/premises if they are regular users of Bike Share.

6. First identify the safest and most pleasant inner city cycling routes
- While confident and experienced cyclists will find the bike lanes that currently exist in the city centre and nearby areas with docking stations are sufficiently safe to ride in (though often not enjoyable), most irregular and inexperienced cyclists will want to carefully choose only the safest and most pleasant routes.

- Hence, you should use Google Maps bicycling layer as a start to identify the safest and most cycling friendly routes and then further mark up the ones that best meet your preferences - such as being separated from cars or at least only having traffic moving at less than 40km/hr.

- The most useful, separated or safer cycling routes in the area covered by Melbourne Bike Share are:
(a) La Trobe Street - which has separated lanes on both sides of the road running east-west the length of the city centre.
(b) Swanston Street - is closed to private cars for most of the city centre grid and has separated lanes heading north to Carlton.
(c) Bourke, William and Spring Streets - have decent cycling lanes for most of their length.
(d) Rathdowne St, St Kilda Rd, Moray St, Cecil St and Fitzroy St all have decent cycling lanes near docking stations.
(e) The off-road Capital City Trail including Southbank and the Yarra river east to Richmond.
(f) The off-road route along the coast next to Beaconsfield Parade heading south.

Google Maps Bicycling Layer for Melbourne Bike Share area

Further Info:
The Age
> Spoke too soon: Melbourne Bike Share to drag chain another year

Test Ride of Melbourne Bike Share

Fixing Australian bike share goes beyond helmet laws

Why does bikeshare work in New York but not in Australia?

Should bike schemes be exempt from helmet laws?

The Conversation: Have helmet laws put the skids on Australia’s bike share scheme?

The bike-share report: Hard times and hope for the future (Embarq)

Struggling bike hire scheme set to expand

Oliver O'Brien Global Bike Share Maps

Google Map - Bike Sharing World Map

ITDP Bike Share Planning Guide

Cycling thrives in Melbourne, Does Bike Share contribute? (video)

The bike-share report’s go-to guide for bike-sharing FAQs

Melbourne Bike Share EOI

Vox: Why don't the poor use bike share systems?

> France24: Theft and vandalism blight Paris bike-share system
> NY Times: French Ideal of Bicycle-Sharing Meets Reality