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Bikeshare, and why ownership matters in the circular economy
Leeds is getting a public e-bike sharing scheme. The Council’s close involvement, alongside public investment is welcome.
It’s been announced today that Leeds could soon have a bikeshare scheme, offering residents access to 630 electric bikes from 140 docking stations in the city centre and the inner-city.
*Update July 2023* - here’s the latest news release about the scheme - due to launch in Autumn this year.
*Update September 2023 - the scheme is now up and running in Leeds - more here.*
The plans are going to a council Executive Board meeting next week, with a view to approving a £2 million funding bid to get the scheme up and running.
Leeds has a long history when it comes to nearly but not quite setting up a bikeshare scheme. Just as we’ve never quite managed to get a mass transit system.
Plenty of cities around the world, London amongst them, have well-established bikeshare schemes, with large fleets of bikes available from fixed docking stations.
And four or five years ago a new model emerged, based on dockless bikes, introduced to cities often without the co-operation of local authorities.
Backed mostly by Chinese venture capital, these schemes were in the main a complete disaster. Vandalism was a common problem — most famously in Manchester — and the dockless operating model resulted in bikes being left all over the place, at the inconvenience of pedestrians.
That particular business model has fizzled out —whilst in Leeds it never even got going.
I remember going along to the launch of the ofo bikeshare scheme in Leeds in 2018.
Yet just four months after saying they were coming to Leeds, ofo announced that they weren’t coming after all, following a “global restructuring” of the business.
So it was back to the drawing board for the Council.
In 2019 they asked operators for expressions of interest in running a bikeshare scheme in Leeds, with a clearly-expressed desire for the scheme to be run at no cost to the Council.
It seems that the market had evolved, and no-one jumped at this opportunity, so it was back to square one.
Which gets us to where we are today.
There is, sometimes, last-mover advantage. Leeds may now benefit from learning from what has and hasn’t worked elsewhere — and I personally think it’s a really good idea to focus exclusively on electric bikes.
E-bikes are a complete gamechanger, particularly in a city which isn’t very flat — and there’s increasing evidence that they attract a much wider group of people to cycling.
I love them (although I don’t currently own one) — and I recently reviewed an e-bike for Edinburgh Bicycle Co-op — you can read about the experience here.
Who’ll own the assets we’ll share?
More broadly, I think there are interesting points to explore here around ownership models in the circular economy (of which sharing schemes like bikeshare are a part).
As this report outlines,
“Unlike the previous proposal the infrastructure to implement the scheme will be funded through public funds and would therefore enable the Council to specify the quality and density of the cycles and docking stations, user charges and the geographical coverage. A commercial operator would implement and operate the scheme but to the standards and quality set by the Council. This scheme would be 100% e-bikes.
Moreover, the Council would set the level of user charges which would not have been the case in the previous scheme. Overall, this project would result in a more inclusive service that would better meet a wider range of policy objectives.”
I think this is a really important step forward. Our understanding of how to effectively run a bikeshare scheme — and achieve the wide range of positive impacts a scheme can bring — has evolved considerably in the last few years, led by key stakeholders like CoMoUk.
Thinking has moved on — from an expectation that a scheme can be successful without Council involvement, or without public funds, to recognising that if you want to a decent, accessible public transport service (for that’s what a bikeshare scheme is), then you need to invest in it.
And you need to be involved in the decisions on how it’s run — like where the docking stations will be, and what the charges will be.
Who owns the assets we’ll share is a theme that I find increasingly interesting as I get more involved in the circular economy.
There is understandable excitement about the opportunities — for example in terms of more efficient use of resources — that business models based on sharing can bring.
From car clubs, to tool libraries, to bikeshare, to clothes hire, it’s clear there are real benefits to people accessing services rather than owning products.
But I think there isn’t enough discussion about who owns the assets that we’ll all be encouraged to share.
It can easily be argued that a benefit of a business model where you hire, for example, a washing machine might be that the operator has a built-in incentive to keep providing you with a good service (including by doing regular maintenance of the machine).
Yet I’d also argue that there’s a risk for the consumer that the provider of the service might take advantage of the power they have as the owner of the asset you need, by, for example, unfairly increasing the fees they charge you once you’re bought into this new business model.
Maybe I need to trust more, but if big money goes into sharing platforms, then those investors are going to want a return. And whilst the sharing economy is, in my opinion, a really exciting opportunity, I think we need to be mindful of the fact that who owns the assets that we are encouraged to “share” does matter.
Which, getting back to my original point, is why I very much welcome how our understanding of how to experience all the benefits of a well-run bikeshare scheme appears to have evolved considerably over the last few years. A similar evolution in our thinking in relation to the broader circular economy will be valuable too.