Friday, 8 January 2010

Macro-Level Trends – Peddling Public Pounds – “Bye Bye” Bicycles

The admonishment of private car use within western metropols has been an ongoing and evolving trend for some years. The idea to replace private domain car travel with public and private hire systems is perhaps best exemplified by the London schema.

As part of the ongoing reformation of London's transport network and cityscape, beyond the infamous congestion zone, the Mayor Boris Johnson has more recently promoted the idea of a public utility bicycle system; having witnessed similar applications elsewhere.

The idea is almost as old as the modern 'Rover Safety' bicycle itself, but perhaps was most visibly prevalent in Amsterdam during the 1960s under the Provo' Movement's White Bicycle project. That uber-liberal scheme of free bicycle use for all ultimately faltered, those 'pick-up / put-down' intentionally unsecured bikes for civilised citizens were typically ushered away by those with lesser morals repainted and privately used, sold to unsuspecting buyers, or stripped for spare parts.

Intriguingly, the scheme's originator today says that the scheme faltered because only a very small number of bikes were made available, of which many were confiscated by the police. Utter nonsense. Speak to any older Amsterdam resident and they'll tell you that the over-idealised 'hippy' scheme folded due to miscreants, not the authorities.

In 1974 the French town of Rochelle started a similar scheme called Yellow Bicycle, and though claimed as successful, in reality it rapidly diminished. In the 1990s community activists in the US took on the task, with projects running in Portland, Oregan and Madison, Wisconsin. In Canada, Toronto operated 'Bikeshare' by non-profit CBN between 2001-2006, essentially the learning-curve precursor to the present-day operations of Montreal's Bixi and Washington DC's 'Smartbikes'.

However, the failure of Bikeshare with its high administrative cost to revenue streams, even with adjusted business modelling, should serve as a vital warning to other socially ambitious towns, cities and administrations.

There have been supposed successes, such as Velo'v in Lyon, who's formulae was essentially copied by Velib elsewhere in France; but once again we suspect that in socialist France the programme has been subtly politically & financially assisted so as not to be seen to fail.

Unsurprisingly in today's eco-generational political push for reduced CO2 and healthier, more sociable mass mobility the idealistic public bicycle model has returned. Lessons of the past have been learned, and ongoing learning supposedly continues regards the development of a practical and functional bike-system and an accordant balanced business model.

Best known is France's Velib system in Paris and other selected French towns like Montpellier which have a mixed culture of tourists & academics. The Copenhagen Summit also gave a chance for world leaders to witness the city's Bycyklen system that runs between mid April and early November each year and offers 2000 bikes, 110 bike stations, 1 repair shop & 4 mobile repairers. Aarhus also runs a smaller scale operation. And Barcelona has adopted a similar city-bike model

Over time a number of start-ups and new entrants have promoted the cause, ranging from Velib to OYBike, but today it is the Canadian firm Bixi that is seemingly growing quickest with the business coup of a contract with the UK's TfL (Transport for London). This achieved having established the scheme in a phase 1 & 2 manner recently in Montreal (May & Aug 2009) and Ottowa (Sept 2009). Montreal sees 8000 bikes, 700 docking stations and undisclosed number of other docking points, whilst Ottowa sees (provisionally?) only a pawltry 50 bikes and 4 docking stations.

Beyond the Transport for London contract, Bixi has won over the city of Boston with an expected 2,500 bikes, 290 docking stations and an associated 3,750 docking points. But it will be London that provides the additional real scale, with 6,000 bikes, 400 docking stations and 10,000 docking stations.

The business model is based on the use of both an on-line period-based subscription bases and the use of credit-card only payment stations on site. The technical infrastructure appears impressive, the hardware making it as convenient as possible for operator and public alike; with quick set-up methods for the docking stations themselves and a self powering and monitoring system via the application of solar sourced energy, and touch screen credit-card tech for one-off or limited use customers. [NB. The Montreal scheme subscription rates are C$5 per day, C$28 per month and C$78 per annum. Surcharge rates are: C$0 first 30 mins, C$1.50 second 30 mins, C$3 third 30 mins & C$6 forth 30 mins and all half-hour periods thereafter].

The practical foibles of a system that is, even with supposed 'monitoring', exposed to theft and vandalism has supposedly been ironed-out as the learning curves of operational challenges have been overcome by requisite solutions – primarily an improved security lock and the use of customers paying deposits.

However, problems are obviously abound.

It is investment-auto-motives' concern that not only is there a possibility that the true cost of such programmes is undisclosed or intentionally blurred under the auspice of social good, but that any latter-day attempts by city authorities (eg Stationnement de Montreal, TfL etc) to transfer the scheme into a PPI investment base, or indeed from PPI towards a fully privatised investment base, could ultimately lead to value-destruction; even with each bicycle acting as a mobile advertising bill-board for sponsors as an additional revenue stream..

It is reported that in Montreal significant infrastructure damage, accidental and inflicted, was experiences, with one fifth of the bikes damaged and inoperable and the docking stations themselves damaged at the hands of determined (not opportunistic) bicycle thieves. Supposedly, the bike designer Michel Dallaire said that it had not occurred to him that people would break the docking stations to steal the bikes. Truly incredulous, truly unbelievable!

The truth is that thieves view this public service initiative as “manna from heaven”. And whilst lower levels of crime may be the case in smaller more civic-minded French & French-Canadian cities, the impersonal urban jungle of inner-London is a place where even the most savvy bike-users are weary. Even today bike-commuters, bicycle-messengers and leisure bikers try and avoid actually securing their own personal bikes to official bike stands given their understanding that bike thieves regularly tour them.

The knowledge that thousands of hi-tech aluminium bikes owned by no-one in particular will be parked over London will be joy to immoral minds. Even if the official bike stations are made increasingly more tamper-proof, criminal minds become ever more ingenious and daring. Moreover, if the bike stations themselves do pose serious deterrent, that could well make the user him/herself a target for 'bike-jacking'. This done either through threat and force, or from orchestrated 'accidents' by pillion-carrying motorcycles or even gangs in cars & vans.

The Economist quotes that the London scheme itself will cost £140m over 6 years, with the idea that the project will have been self-funding having reached break-even by the end of that period.
Business analysts at Bixi and at TfL will have been 'running the numbers' to gauge different scenarios regards the number and mix of user types to arrive at subscription fees and period rental charges.

That £140m for the set-up and running costs over 6000 bikes and associated hardware, infrastructure and staff equates to an average (non DCF) of £23,333 per bike over the 6 years, so equating to £3,888 per bike per year.

This means each bike will need to earn £10.65 per day, simplistically assuming that no bikes are stolen, are taken out of service or need additional repair. Of course, one would hope the business model will have provided a 15% to 20% cost contingency for the realities of the down-time of stolen bikes, requiring new manufacture orders, bike 'down-time' and spare parts for damaged cycles.

Add that 20% figure (as born out by Montreal's experience of 1/5 losses) and the number rises to £12.78 per bike per day for full 365 day use over the full 6 years.

But even this common-sense ready-reckoning will ultimately prove a fallacy.

Even that breakeven-point will seem optimistic if we include lost rental time from cold winter days, snow & ice (as presently witnessed), nominal holiday periods that heavily fluctuate demand and the fact that much of the realistic usage will be weekend orientated given that most users will be at work 5 days per week for the majority of the day.

investment-auto-motives suspects the real income figure required is more akin to a consistent £18-20 per day per unit. But the truth is that this £140m - and very probably plus - will be an administrative sunk cost, with the scheme having little chance to develop into becoming in time a privately funded, revenue earning “method of intermodal transport” presently being pronounced.

Given that the UK's and London's public finances are under such pressure to deliver bang for buck, this overtly honourable but practically unrealistic public utility bicycle scheme could well prove the nail in the London Mayoral coffin as the next (probably Tory) government seeks to drastically cut costs via cross UK and probably abolish Mayoral controlled city-budgets.

But in the meantime, the scheme will go into affect as part of the 'good-vibe' feeling that the present government and contra-political London Mayor wish to generate prior to the 2012 Olympics. Boris Johnson, Gordon brown et al will want to showcase London as the bicycling capital of the western world come 2012.

Unfortunately it is suspected that many of the London schemes' users will ultimately be disillusioned with the limitations of the service itself (ie bicycle availability, limited use periods, surcharges, journey restrictions between 'stations' etc) and simply abandon the scheme in favour of walking, public transport or purchasing their own bikes.

Leading citizens into their own private bike use is pronounced as an aim of the scheme, but we suggest the majority cycling converts will simply have done so and will do so anyway, effectually by-passing the assistance of the scheme.

Of the Bixi bikes themselves, many hundreds will be stolen and stripped, and put into shipping containers for transport out of the UK destined for the CEE region, Russia and elsewhere.

Thus, beyond the poor utility-cost financial burden to society, there may even be a sizable human cost if the scheme itself generates a increased trend for organised 'bike-jacking'.

investment-auto-motives dislikes being the harbinger of doom for what is on the surface a well intended initiative. And we do indeed applaud the commercial initiative of Bixi, it will undoutedly do well for itself presuming it has fiscal exclusions for unexpected vaguaries and events.

However, a devils' advocate is required.

We suspect, the real issue is very probably about the operational modelling that truly reflect the realities of the city, indeed London, per se.

In the business realities of the world at large, where private enterprise supplies to private enterprise to the tune of £140m, the rigour of financial modelling and cost management is typically as water-tight as possible. The same should be the case for private to public service contracts. And in this case, Whitehall itself should encourage an independent entity to look over the possibly over-optimistic business model created between TfL and Bixi, to serve as warning flag waiver and project advisor.

At its heart the effort is indeed commendable, and should be given as great a chance as possible to actually work to make that all important difference to the planet and its people. Otherwise it will simply be a case of “bye bye bicycles” and “bye bye public confidence”.