About 12 months ago, the City of Melbourne introduced a new bike share program for the Melbourne community. Based on similar highly successful programs in places like London, Montreal and San Francisco, the program provides easy access to 100 bikes at 10 stations across the city.
But one year on, rider numbers have fallen well short of expectations and debate is currently raging in Melbourne about the long-term viability of the program. It seems 25,000 Melbournians will happily turn out for a city parade to congratulate Australia’s first Tour de France winner Cadel Evans, but only about 250 per day actually want to get on a bike themselves.
Don’t get me wrong, I think bike share programs are an awesome idea. I spent an amazing week in Montreal cruising around on a Bixi bike, and there are numerous successful examples of bike share programs across the world that are both utilised and adored by local communities.
So why is Melbourne different? Firstly, it’s got to do with helmets. Helmets are compulsory in Australia and the fine for not wearing one while cycling is hefty. So you’d think that helmets would be available to rent with the bikes right? Wrong. Australian law also mandates that if a helmet is rented, an inspection and sterilization must be completed after each rental, which is clearly not going to happen.
As a result, share-cyclists either need to rent a helmet from a bike rental store, or buy one from vending machines located near the bike stations. The other option of course is to carry a helmet with you on the off-chance that you might want to cycle, along with a spare pair of trainers in case you need to go running, and a clean pair of underpants in case you get hit by a bus.
Critics of the program have also suggested that the city might have put the cart before the horse in creating the program, and that the money should have first gone into providing safe cycling infrastructure in the city before we start providing the bikes.
Melbourne isn’t an easy place to cycle – bike lanes are few and far between, and where they do exist they are narrow, un-segregated and prone to random disappearance when the roads get too narrow. Throw in trams, hook turns and generally inconsiderate drivers, and riding in Melbourne can seem like a bit of a suicide mission.
But regardless of the issues, I prefer to live in a city that supports bike-sharing than one that doesn’t, and hopefully the program is at least educating the Melbourne community about the ease and efficiency of using bikes for short trips. Now if we could just get Le Tour guys using these bikes, maybe their popularity would increase…