It’s been a big week for transport announcements in Auckland, so one recent announcement in mid-April snuck in under the radar: AT’s decision to put its plans for publicly-run bike share on hold. Looks like a win for one company at least – but is it a win for Auckland?
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Auckland Transport announced last week that they’ve decided to pause plans to invest in bike share as a result of ‘the success of commercial bike share schemes’.
The rationale from AT is to let those commercial operators have a go and assume the cost and risk of developing bike share, rather than ratepayers picking up the tab to arguably reinvent the wheel.
AT says they’ll work closely with Council to license bike share operators ‘to deliver the best outcome for Auckland’ – while reserving the option to start planning a publicly-run scheme if the private sector doesn’t deliver the results AT expects for Auckland.
The announcement caps off several years of uncertainty and chequered progress towards bike share in Auckland – so what’s changed to bring us into the commercial age?
The obvious and acknowledged game-changer here is OnzO – they of the highly visible black-and-yellow town bikes dotted around the Auckland CBD and surrounds (and sometimes quite a bit further afield).
The OnzO equation is dead simple: two wheels, one gear and one app-controlled electronic lock, all yours for 25 cents per quarter hour. Once your trip ends, the bikes can officially be left at any public bike rack for the next user, with no need to return to a ‘home base’ rental hub.
At launch last October, that was an offer a lot of people couldn’t pass up, and OnzO quickly picked up thousands of curious subscribers. Not all have stuck around, but as of April 2018, OnzO claims 13,000 active users and a grand total of 62,000 trips so far.
All of this arrived with some controversy, however, as OnzO literally launched overnight without gaining a license to operate. Not only were they not affiliated with AT at all (confusing many observers), but AT’s walking and cycling team was just as surprised as we were. Nevertheless, AT quickly announced that they’d work with OnzO towards getting them properly licensed.
OnzO received a trial license through February 2018 and things proceeded from there, not always smoothly. With little official publicity, Aucklanders had to figure things out as they went. Still, the idea caught on fast, and the Quay Street cycleway and Tamaki Drive became OnzO home turf, attracting plenty of tourists and people enjoying a sunny interlude in town, or a quick trip that was faster than walking.
First @onzo_nz ride; love the concept. My 20 minute walk turned into a 5 minute bike ride. But often the pedal is broken or helmet is missing. And way too small! But for the rest awesome!! pic.twitter.com/pvObiaMtKH
— Jessica de Heij (@jdeheij) February 22, 2018
People quickly got creative with the share bikes for good and for ill, as OnzOs wound up on rooftops, atop seaside walls and bus shelters, inside phone booths, and many more unlikely spots – all lovingly documented on social media and Facebook groups such as OnzOs in Weird Places.
With all those users clamouring for more OnzOs in more places (except up trees), more bikes were ordered. That momentarily put OnzO in potential breach of its trial license limitations, until AT issued another three-month extension in March.
The waters seem to have smoothed since, and last week’s announcement will now see AT step back from their own bike share plans, to let OnzO and other expected commercial operators do their thing.
Who dares wins?
The modest team behind OnzO’s local operation are unlikely to be displeased with AT’s announcement. It’s common for dockless bike share operators like these to set up first and ask permission later, and by doing so in Auckland, OnzO appears to have stolen a march on other firms by getting more bikes into the city, faster.
The genie is out of the bottle; 62,000 trips that wouldn’t otherwise have happened is not to be sneezed at. It’s perhaps the flip side of the popular saying ‘if you build it, they will come’ – yes, bike paths magnetically attract people on bikes, just as a baseball diamond in a cornfield attracts ghostly players. But you could also leave a bat and ball on the back lawn, or a grab-and-go bike in a public place, and see what happens…
But it’s been a pretty frustrating situation for firms such as NextBike and Adventure Capital (and a more recent electric bike share consortium) who have kept the bike share and bike rental flame burning in Auckland for some time – and who patiently waited for the outcome of AT’s business case to find out what their role might be in the future of Auckland bike share.
By announcing that the field is now open to commercial operators, AT has removed some uncertainty for existing businesses – but only after OnzO has gained significant ground in the meantime, leaving longterm local outfits to play catch-up against a large-scale new arrival.
And although no other operator matches OnzO’s scale right now, it’s still an open question whether OnzO is the bike share service that Auckland deserves long-term – or for that matter the one it needs right now.
Much was made at launch time about the yellow and black bikes’ small wheels, tiny frames, and lack of gearing – and, as summer turns into winter, their lack of lights is likely to become a liability. Still, despite being tested and found wanting by the roadie crowd, the bike design doesn’t seem to have been a major barrier to uptake. The classic OnzO trip covers easy grades within the CBD or suburbs, either for recreation or a handy alternative to either walking, or short-range Uber/ Zoomy journeys.
The busier Auckland roads – where gears are definitely called for – are often hostile enough to deter most casual cyclists, regardless. And yet, the black and yellow bikes are being spotted in increasing numbers along major routes and on school commutes, paving the way towards more frequent casual cycling on arterial routes and main streets.
This raises the obvious issue of how the bike-share tail will start to wag the cycleway dog at the local level. Especially on shopping streets and around major activity hubs and attractions, the popularity of grab-and-go bikes – combined with the volume of vehicular traffic and busy footpaths – will likely lead to swift demand for dedicated space for people on bikes.
And that leads to one huge challenge: as bike share boosts the number of people using bikes in our town centres and neighbourhoods, will AT be able to deliver local street infrastructure fast enough to keep up with demand and keep everyone safe?
— Nicolas Reid (@Nicolas_Reid) April 22, 2018
Bumps in the road
How are the bikes working from a user perspective? The most common grievance seems to be with OnzO’s app – particularly its reporting functions for bikes that have been damaged or ‘privatised’ into basements and suburban garages. (Useful to know: their operating agreement with Auckland Council means you can call Council’s hotline 093010101 to collect bikes that have been abandoned in one place for more than seven days).
Distribution and availability are the other main hassles. OnzOs tend to congregate in the city centre and are fewer and farther between the further out you go. Riders who are trip-chaining are likely to take the same bike with them right to the end of their journey, instead of taking a chance on finding a ‘last leg’ pick-up later on.
As a result, many OnzOs outside of the CBD tend to be marooned in random suburban locations, where they sit idle for hours or days before being returned to a busier area. Onzo’s current license requires the company to have a solid plan for spreading bikes around and removing those that are broken or left in inappropriate locations, but with a team of nine running a fleet of almost 2,000 bikes, it’s going to be a struggle for them to keep up.
We know this because Bike Auckland gets daily messages from unhappy OnzO users who’ve struck an answerphone and full mailbox when calling the company’s 0800 number, and are unable to make contact via the Facebook page. We know AT receives similar calls, likely at a similar volume. So far, it seems that customer care is lagging behind customer expectations.
Onzo app indicated 2 bikes were available near my local shops but I didn't spot them. Then this… pic.twitter.com/Cob0ChHAaA
— Alan Gray (@alangraynz) April 19, 2018
We’ve raised this issue with AT, who have in turn told us to log these complaints individually ourselves with Auckland Council – which is counter-intuitive to say the least, and not a great first impression of AT’s supervisory role when it comes to commercial bike share operators. If the city is content to allow private companies to step up and supply what could have been a public service, surely Aucklanders deserve better attention to the quality of their user experience?
In the commercial sphere, assuming OnzO remains in the game, it’ll now be left for other firms to either attempt to challenge them or to move into other niches that the black and yellow bikes aren’t occupying. Rumours abound of other bike share operators on the horizon offering better lights, bigger wheels, gearing, and other mod-cons (even electric assist).
For their part, OnzO have hinted at refinements to their own bikes in coming months, so we’ll be keen to see what form that takes.
AT say it will look for ways to support all these bike share operators, which might include bike hubs at major public transport centres such as Britomart. There’s an idea! In fact it’s been frequently suggested and promoted by Bike Auckland and others for bikes in general – so if bike share is the catalyst that makes this possible, that’s progress at least.
Speaking of infrastructure, that’s the big question. Where’s all the bike parking? Are we equipped to meet the needs of inrushing commercial bike share, when it’s hard to even find a place to park a regular bike in most parts of Auckland, let alone safe networks to ride along?
In its early months, OnzO required users to park their steeds in public bike racks at the end of a ride. AT has since announced that as a condition of OnzO’s license, bikes should be parked beside those racks instead of in them.
If enforced, this will at least ease the pressure on Auckland’s scarce public bike racks – but it does seem like an invitation for more bikes to be parked willy-nilly. And with a lot of recent coverage focusing on the downside of dockless share bikes (whether in Australia, China, or bike paradise Amsterdam) it’ll be important to make sure commercial operators do business in a way that wins over the general public, rather than creating fresh frustration that gets taken out on bike share as a concept – or people on bikes generally.
What about AT’s role in this? A lot will hinge on just how actively they keep tabs on the bike share sector, or whether the approach is to stay ‘hands off’ until problems appear. The latter seems risky to us. Having clearly defined roles between AT and Auckland Council on monitoring and enforcing the terms of the operating license would be a good start.
We also think it’d be helpful for AT to publicly communicate the outcomes it wants to see from bike share, so that operators (and we, the public) have transparency on the likely future of these services – particularly if AT reserves the option to intervene in what will now be a commercial market.
There’s clearly more than one way to tackle the bike share question. There’ll be lessons to learn in Christchurch, too, where the City Council will shortly announce a successful tender for running a public bike share system, replacing a crowdfunded trial scheme (significantly, the local docked bikeshare scheme has been informed they’re not in the running).
So time will tell. We’ll keep up with developments as best we can – and being sharing types, you’ll know more when we do!
Further reading for a rainy weekend…
Auckland is just one point in a global web of rapidly expanding tech-enhanced mobility services. Read the fascinating story of bike share as a growing global tech battleground, and the economics behind the business of bikes at a dollar an hour (or even less).