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The City of Ballarat has recently adopted its Integrated Transport Plan, which aims to present a cohesive vision for the transport future of the city, looking at all the different modes together rather than just each one in isolation. There's a lot in there to digest, and I'll probably do a few posts focusing on different aspects of this, but I wanted to do a quick post on one of the things Council is advancing now - a trial of hirable eScooters. While I think it's safe to say that things like bus reform would be more important (and indeed one of the reasons Council is so keen to advance this is to provide for trips that the current bus network makes impractical) this is something Council can control quite directly, without the State government, and can probably roll out quite quickly - hence making it a priority.
Normally when I'm writing about buses or trains, or conventional user-owned bikes, best practice is usually pretty clear. There's obviously an art to applying general principles to specific situations, and also I am not a qualified transport planner, so I don't always get it right; but there's an extensive literature to draw upon, and usually a wide variety of real-world examples for comparison. And as much as Australia likes to think of ourselves as somehow exceptional or unique or culturally different ("Australians love their cars" etc), broadly speaking these things are based on universally applicable concepts; what works elsewhere will work here.
But that's not really the case with dockless hirable eScooters, or their cousins the dockless hirable bikes - it's such a new phenomenon that there's still quite a lot of unanswered questions about what works and what doesn't. There have been a lot of well-publicised failures, but also some success stories - and there's so many variables that it's still not 100% clear why. So I can't tell you the ultimate destination...but I'm hoping to illuminate at least a bit of the path ahead.
eScooters in Stockholme (via Rlbberlin)
Transport consultant Jarrett Walker has blogged a bit about how we should be thinking about eScooters, and allocating street space for them. His provisional categorisation is based on a matrix of speed and width, prioritising things so that slow vehicles don't hold up faster ones, and so that the space in a corridor is allocated as efficiently as possible (ie vehicles only have as much width as they need).
But several people in the comments of Jarrett's blog have taken an approach that I think makes more sense - base it on kinetic energy, which is a function of speed and weight. While they're not necessarily intrinsically linked, this will also correlate with width, and with how quickly one can stop and how sharply one can turn. So basically, it's a question of how likely one thing is to hit another, and how much damage would be done if they did hit (but, happily, it does still allocate street space in an efficient way).
In this framework, an eScooter with a person on it is likely to weigh roughly as much as a person on a bike, and to be travelling at a comparable speed - so it makes sense for them to go in the bike lane. (It's my view that absolute speed limits should be enforced on eScooters, both by companies operating share schemes, and by those importing them for private ownership). By the same token, if they're travelling slowly enough, it may be appropriate for them to mix with pedestrians - let's say, in the final few metres to your destination. So perhaps it's a case of "You have to use bike lanes when the motor's on and you're travelling more quickly, but you can use it on the footpath in manual mode"?
Vandalism contributed to the failure of Melbourne's oBike dockless bikeshare program (source)
When it comes to the logistics of how to get these schemes to work, this Vice article paints an interesting picture. Broadly it seemed like the first phase, in which cities put out tenders for people to run a local bikeshare system, and took an active role in setting up the requirements for it, they worked okay; but then when techbros heedlessly threw venture capital at the problem, they didn't work out so well. And this was allowed to happen, at least in part, because it was cheaper and easier for cities to just "leave it to the private sector" to handle it - which is a very American attitude, but something we are far from immune from in Australia. These kinds of examples might help us figure out what kind of governance structures we should be looking at for our own schemes.
When I was over in Europe I saw a ton of different bike and scooter sharing systems in the different cities I visited. There were a range of private and quasi-public versions, some of which coexist side by side. Amsterdam, for example, has the OV-fiets, which is run by the Dutch national railway company and is perhaps more what you'd think of as a bikeshare program, while Swapfiets is a private company that uses more conventional bikes for longer-term rentals. Lyon and Hamburg both have Bird and Lime scooters - private companies run on basically the same model - competing with each other.
OV-fiets, the bikeshare run by the Dutch national railways (via Willem_90)
Broadly, my observation was that the cities that had their shit together - the ones that seemed to have good urban form, with space for people and not just cars - seemed to benefit from having these personal mobility rentals. In those cities they seemed to do broadly what they were supposed to do - provide a last-mile solution to fill the gaps in the public transport network.
But in the cities that didn't have their shit together - the ones with no bike lanes, extremely narrow footpaths, busy roads with lots of on-street parking, etc - the scooters just made things worse. People would have to be insane to ride them on the roads, so they rode on the footpaths, in amongst the pedestrians. Unused scooters and bikes would also clog up footpaths and other pedestrian spaces, where people should be gathering - squares, riverside promenades, etc.
Some Wind scooters in Lyon, in typical form (via Sebleouf)
The local legal environment
In Victoria, eBikes are basically governed by two main limitations - the motor can't be more than 200 watts, and the motor can't assist riders to go more than 25km/h. eScooters have the same wattage limit but a top speed of 10km/h. I'd like to understand the rationale for the lower speed limit for scooters - it may reflect the assumption that they would be used on footpaths among pedestrians, in which case it might be worthwhile changing it if we're putting them in bike lanes. But broadly I don't think these regulations represent a significant barrier to a scheme working here.
However the other aspect to keep in mind is that Australia has mandatory helmet laws, while most jurisdictions around the world do not. In pretty much every international example, you just need to figure out how to deal with the scooter or the bike itself - getting precisely enough of them where they need to be, balancing ease of access and use with difficulty of theft, balancing needing to have enough units for peak demand while not cluttering up the place when there's low demand, etc. Which, as we've seen, is hard enough.
A vending machine for bikeshare helmets in Southern Cross Station (via Peter Halasz)
But in Australia you also need to ensure that person has access to a helmet - which also needs to be both easily accessible and hard to steal, and so on. If we look at conventional cyclists who own their own bikes, we've seen the massive deterrent effect that mandatory helmets have had over the years - but even if you assume bikeshare or scootershare users will be happy to wear a helmet, you have to actually make it available to them. This adds another layer of complexity that, frankly, I think could sink the whole enterprise; it's one of the reasons Melbourne's bikeshare system struggled to do huge numbers, and even by the end of that program they'd never really solved the problem.
It's clearly a big barrier, but will it be insurmountable? Who knows.
So what's the verdict?
With the very local and very prominent failure of the dockless oBikes in Melbourne a few years ago, I can really understand why a lot of people might think a dockless eScooter system in Ballarat would be doomed to fail. To be honest, I'm very wary too. But having seen this kind of thing work quite well in a few places, I still hold out hope that we can make it work in Ballarat - it's definitely worth running a trial. To give it the best possible chance of success, though, I think there's a few things we'll need to keep in mind.
The oBikes are returning to the waterways, nature is healing (via Alan Levine)
Firstly, the City of Ballarat will need to take an extremely active role in the program. They can't just allow a private company to give it a crack, they need to actively work with a firm to make sure that they're going to do it in a way that meets the expectations of the community - visitors and residents alike. In addition to cost, I understand that these arrangements are often chosen with the idea that they allow governments to distance themselves easily if it's a failure - but the thing is, if it's a failure they won't get a second chance. If there's some minor issues that need correcting, that's one thing, but if this goes the way of Melbourne's oBikes, it won't matter if they learn from their mistakes - the community's trust will have been broken and they won't allow it a second time.
Secondly, the City's own environment will be crucial. As I said, one of the keys to the success overseas seems to be how good the city's urban form is to begin with. The more safe cycling infrastructure we have in place, the more likely the scheme will be to succeed - it's as simple as that. So rolling out the proposed cycling network as quickly as possible should be a priority. On a similar note, if the scheme uses SoBi's quasi-docked model (which I think has a lot of merit) then rolling out more conventional bike racks around the city would be a good idea too; presumably something flexible and suitable for either bikes or scooters would be the way to go.
City of Ballarat's proposed cycling network, still under construction
Despite some elected councillors who are, at best, ambivalent about cycling infrastructure, the council officers have been pushing hard for the rollout of the City's Cycling Action Plan - which is great to see, even if I do always want to push for more. Hopefully this eScooter program will create a larger constituency to help push things along even faster. But on the governance side they do seem to be taking a relatively hands-off approach to things, so I'm hopeful they can take the reins a bit more and give this scheme its best chance of success.
This article first appeared on the-iron-road.blogspot.com
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