The financial viability of public bicycle hiring schemes

At the Journal of Transport Geography we are currently preparing a special section on the spatial analysis of public bicycle hiring schemes. The section will be guest edited by Jonathan Corcoran at the University of Queensland, Australia and Teibei (Terry) Li at Griffith University, Australia and is due to be published later this year.

The section will make a useful contribution to the now burgeoning literature on bike sharing schemes in transport studies and geography. Many of the recent studies are fairly positive about the potential of these schemes to expand and help making urban transport more sustainable. But there are some more critical voices as well, and my attention was drawn to a recent piece by Matthew Christensen and Susan Shaheen — a leading researcher when it comes to the sharing of bikes and cars.

Their argument is that the financial future of many of urban bike sharing schemes are not as bright as some of the celebratory accounts of bike sharing suggest. This is partly because corporate sponsors may be quite interested in supporting schemes in the start up phase but less so in keeping established schemes running (as is currently happening in London). Furthermore, at the current time of financial austerity at the local level across large swaths of the Global North, the local state may not be very willing to keep bike sharing system with ailing finances afloat. On the other hand, there is the question whether local governments really have a choice: when push comes to shove, will they really withdraw support for schemes whose start up has attracted lots of attention in the (local) media? As often in transport governance, political discourse and reality may go their separate ways.

A series of risks can nonetheless be identified. If it turns out that ailing systems will indeed be kept running with public subsidy, we will see that local governments — keen to follow ‘best practice’ and set up their own bike sharing scheme — have locked themselves into (financially) supporting another public transport system in an era when extra funds for transprt policy are unlikely to become available (at least in the Global North). Given that public bicycle sharing system are often socially selective — they are often patronized much less by poorer households, migrants from non-western backgrounds, women — ethical questions regarding justice in the city will be raised as well.