Monday, July 12, 2010

Will bicycle rentals work in India?

The Hindu reports about an apparently successful free bicycle-renting program launched by the local government in Shanghai's Minhang district and advocates adoption of similar programs in Indian cities to more effectively manage their congested road traffic. It writes,

"The bicycle-sharing programme has received a widely positive public response. Over 12 months, a programme that began with a couple of stations attached to metro-rail terminals has expanded to a network of 230 stations with 12,000 bicycles. More than 10,000 residents have signed on... The bicycles are available 24 hours a day. Each resident is given an ID card, with which one can rent and return bicycles at any of the stations, usually located near metro-rail terminals. Private bicycle-renting companies have also been roped in."

Bicycle sharing/renting programs that seeks to provide seamless connectivity between the metro network and bus routes have been tried out in many European countries in recent years. Many European cities like those in Netherlands have even earmarked dedicated road lanes for bicycles.

The popular VĂ©lib’s bikes, run by JCDecaux (an outdoor advertising company), and which are subsidized with advertising and have an extensive network of self-service rental stations, are now being used all over Paris to complement its excellent metro and bus-based public transit systems. Many US cities too look set to embrace bicycle-sharing.

If the objective is to reduce the traffic on our city roads, we need to get private cars users off the road. In other words, the success of the bicycle program would lie in its ability not to merely get people to use them, but to specifically get regular private car-users to switch. However, on this specific objective, I am not sure whether it will be effective in India (especially a strategy that focuses only on bicycle renting/sharing) for the following reasons

1. Unlike the European and Chinese cities with their inherent advantage of mild climate, the hot summers in India will be a strong deterrent against people using bicycles. Will any car-user trade the comfort of his car to ride a bicycle in the sweltering heat of 40-plus degrees?

2. In all the aforementioned cities where such programs are in place, commuters use bicycles to ensure seamless integration with public transit facilities and not as the sole means of transport. This means that the success of such programs depends critically on the availability of good public transport facilities, that when combined with bicycles encourage people to trade their private car-use.

3. As with Paris, such programs will face the problem of vandalism. Thefts, careless usage, poor maintenance etc have all hurt the Velib program. Half the original fleet of 15,000 specially made bicycles have disappeared, presumed stolen, and 80% of them have been stolen or damaged. The problem will be exponentially larger in India, even with strong safeguards (very strong safeguards will also discourage use by limiting the potential market). Whatever the safeguards, there will enough users with large enough incentive to steal and/or vandalize these bicycles.

4. The sheer numbers of commuters in our cities means that the numbers required will be many times more than that in any European city for the program to make any significant dent in getting private car-users to switch. This would require much larger numbers of bicycles, rental centers, repairs and maintenance facilities, and co-ordination among them. Only governments can invest and manage such infrastructure logistics, atleast initially. And therein lies the danger of this getting subverted like the regular government programs.

5. Unlike in many of these countries, two-wheelers run the largest accident-risk in the free-for-all of Indian traffic system. Without dramatically improving the road-traffic dynamics, merely getting people out into the roads with bicycles will only end up increasing the numbers of road accidents and fatalities. In any case, given the narrow widths of most city roads and resistance to any road-widening, it may not be possible to provide dedicated bicycle-lanes.

6. Finally, since the demand for bicycle use itself is large and unmet (due to the sheer size of population), there is the strong possibility that the bicycles could end up being used by those who would have otherwise used public transport systems. In other words, these bicycles would merely add to the traffic (since the road footprint of bicycles would be larger than that of public transport systems), by encouraging some regular users of public transport to switch to cycles.

However, the Hindu report also informs of a unique licence-issuing system in Shanghai, which now caps the number of car-licences issued every month to ease pressure on traffic. At monthly auctions, car-owners now have to compete to get their hands on precious licence-plates. The demand for cars is such that a licence plate now costs as much as a car, thereby making it far too expensive to own a car. It is such complementarity of policies and not one-off programs like bike-sharing/rental that can meaningfully address the urban-traffic challenges.

Developing such policies and turning them into successes require more than a few years, In fact, the Netherlands didn't get its extensive network of separated bicycle lanes and exclusive facilities overnight — it took decades.

Update 1
Two more reasons... Nikhil makes an important point about the "uncool factor associated with going to work in a cycle". Praveen rightly points out that "cycling is not having status value vis a vis cars/four wheelers". Both these factors are significant social/psychological barriers against widespread adoption of cycling.

Update 2 (29/6/2011)

More than one hundred European cities have launched rent-a-bike projects allowing people to use pedal-power to whizz from Point A to Point B.


Mukund Iyer R. said...

The success of any program depends on the mutual co-operation of two things.
1. The friendly way in which it is presented. (Exclusive bicycle lanes, free parking, even perhaps limited time discount vouchers!)
2. The way in which it is patronized.

The absence of a cohesive effort of both destroys a system.

I live in Montreal which is a bicycle friendly city. I also lived inPune which 30 years ago was a bicycle city. The temperatures in Pune may have changed aa degree or two more only due to the excessive cars that ply in the city.

Why have a free program regulated by ID cards etc? Why is the government interested in the business? Rather, the government should seriously target infrastructure (provide bicycle lanes, extensive bicycle parking). The bike rent program should not be free.

Second, the government must encourage small target audiences and go at it in phases. First schools and school children. Then housewives. Then daytime service providers (housemaids).

Government should put in a mechanism ensure corporate workplaces are bicycle friendly.

The sheer number of commuters will help drive the program successfully.

After reading your blog, I am not convinced that such a program won't work in India.

Nikhil Narayanan said...

In the Indian context:
What about the uncool factor associated with going to work in a cycle? Though it is increasingly becoming cool , there is a long way to go?
The cycle culture was popular in China much earlier. We are never surprised by seeing images of a Chinese street full of cyclists.

Adoption of cycle as a means of transport is not easy. Agreeing with the rest of the points you mentioned.