The restrictions imposed to curb the spread of Covid have had a major impact on the mobility habits of much of the world’s population, favouring the spread of new urban travel patterns.
According to the Google Mobility Report, since the start of the pandemic, global capitals have seen a sharp decline in the use of public transport, with decreases up to 71% in London, 43% in New Delhi and almost a third in Sydney. On the contrary, other forms of active transport have increased exponentially, whether for necessity or pleasure, hence cities’ repopulation with cyclists attracted by the empty streets and improved air quality. In Philadelphia, cycling has more than doubled, the UK has seen a boom in bike repairs and in Wuhan, where the pandemic originated, bike sharing services have seen increases up to ten times comparing to pre-Covid levels.
Governments around the world did not stay idly by and started reshaping their urban mobility patterns towards cycling investing in large-scale bike sharing schemes with increasingly smart and innovative technologies. However, while an enhanced normalisation and accessibility of cycling is certainly to be encouraged, the large-scale implementation of these sharing schemes is embedded with responsibilities.
Unlike other shared mobility schemes, such as car sharing or city scooters, with bike sharing "professional approaches, adequate funding, planning flexibility, democratic governance mechanisms and proper evaluation are required,” Esther Anaya, a researcher in cycling mobility at Imperial College London, explained. Indeed, while in many European capitals the adoption of these services in the past decades has brought substantial economic and health benefits, other cities were unprepared to host aggressive bike sharing schemes, which eventually failed.
"It may seem counterintuitive, but when large services are implemented and there is a boom in their use, bikes and stations become overused, requiring more intensive maintenance or replacement," Anaya said. And when services are not prepared to quickly cover the financial consequences of overuse, the quality suffers, vandalism increases, the service's image is damaged and it can be too expensive to fix it," she commented. The photos of the "bike graveyards" in China a few years ago showed the threats posed by a failing bike sharing system that, when not thoroughly planned or properly structured, leaves thousands of tech two-wheelers to deteriorate into problematic e-waste.
A proper assessment of cultural and historical background, education, communication, and planning tools. I call it an integrated cycling policy.
Particularly in the case of Asian cities, the setbacks that these systems have encountered go beyond the already complex mobility problems. There, the services are mostly owned by private companies operating in the global market with a neo-liberal approach based on the data they collect with information and communication technologies (TIC). "These companies exploit their users’ data, the use of public space, and take advantage of city councils that are not aware of the consequences of these activities or have not managed to impose regulations to protect citizens,” Anaya said.
This is particularly problematic in the West, where – unlike China – the occupation of public space is a very sensitive issue and regulations are strict. When these companies landed in Europe a few years ago, implementing their systems was proved controversial. The inadequacy of the service was evident even in a small urban centre like Milan, whose streets blocked by piles of yellow bicycles from the Chinese sharing service Ofo and the photos of bikes thrown into the Navigli are still a vivid memory today. Anaya explained that this is “a case of transferring a cycling policy without a proper assessment of cultural and historical background, education, communication, and planning tools. I call it an integrated cycling policy.”
In addition, there is the risk of creating inequalities. In fact, responding to logistical and financial choices, bike sharing stations are often placed in the wealthiest areas of cities, leaving behind an entire section of the population, precisely the one that would make the most out of the service’s health and economic benefits. "Equity must be taken into account and must be assessed from the outset, otherwise there is a risk of social exclusion, which is unfortunate when it comes to a public transport service, specifically when it is owned by the public administration," the researcher commented.
Therefore, while during Covid metropolises from Jakarta to Bogota to New York have invested into to the creation of new bike sharing services and the extension of their cycling systems, it will become imperative for them to also develop a set of cycling policies integrated with wider mobility systems, urban planning, and cultural background. In this context, the role of cities will become crucial in ensuring the success of the service by putting in place appropriate infrastructures, relevant regulatory frameworks, and fair access to bikes. To make bike sharing work, Amaya concluded, “it is time to get serious about cycling policies.”