Is dockless bike-share dead?

In the past couple of weeks Ofo, one of the largest dockless bike-share companies, has announced a major downsizing across North America and Australia. They are not alone - Reddy Bike and OBike have also recently stopped operating in Australia and Singapore respectively. But the reasons for this dramatic back-pedal (pun-intended) are not clear from press statements. Nebulous descriptions include critical thinking about priority markets which suggests perhaps the Beijing-based Ofo misjudged the Western market, but can this really be true of a company with multi-billion dollar investment in an age of global commerce?

It is true that to some extent the backlash against disruption has had an effect. Dockless bike-share operations have faced a lot of public criticism about careless parking, wastefulness and dubious business practices. It is also true that, no doubt fuelled by genuine problems and by fearful 'decibel planning', City councils have reacted by either enforcing current bylaws to remove them or by over-reacted with new bylaws to make it too hard or expensive to operate. However, it is tempting to believe that the rapid rise and fall may also be because the business model isn't right - yet.

Now before I offer any opinions, I have to admit I almost immediately drunk the dockless KoolAid as a great option for cities. I promoted the concept to regional officials because it avoided the large capital cost of docking stations typically required of cities for traditional bike share, and because dockless services have the flexibility to expand and update the bike fleet very quickly. In my planner's brain, more bikes on the street could promote a bike culture that would outweigh the negatives of a few idiots leaving bikes in trees and rivers. This of course wilfully ignored the fact that the few (stupid) bikers who regularly blow through red lights have fuelled media sensationalism about crazed legions of cyclists for decades. Indeed it seems most news articles about dockless bike-share favoured pictures of bike mountains in China or bikes left in amusing locations rather than the many simple, convenient trips they supported.

I still believe in the potential but in hindsight realize I under-estimated how toxic a city's pro-bike policies can be to any new initiative, and that the current model for dockless bike-share doesn't seem to have got the 'disruptive mobility business model' right. Having researched new mobility services for several years now, two things stick out to me as wrong with dockless bike-share.

Firstly, it is not on-demand enough. The idea of dockless seemed to be provide so many bikes that they are always within easy reach. Inaccurate comparisons were made to dockless bike-share being 'Uber for cycling', when in fact you had to go find a bike. They can't come to you when you needed them, and are not in defined places (although admittedly geo-fencing trials did manage to coral bikes in some areas). Whatever the facts about deployment and rebalancing to keep bikes distributed, any amount of doubt about availability can be a major barrier to behaviour change, and especially if we ascribe a high personal value to the trip. This leaves dockless-bike share with the lower personal value, more discretionary (and hence harder to predict) trips. This conclusion could be drawn from small scale studies that indicate users may come from lower income groups, make more trips in the afternoon, and travel in a wider geographic area than docked bike-share.

Secondly, I have to wonder if the business case for some bike-share start-ups was pitched on the wrong assumptions. Bike-share is not a Uber-like platform, and in fact owes more similarities to a scaled-down traditional bus business, because it is asset-heavy with significant human and physical overheads for customer care, maintenance and fleet rebalancing. This overhead has to be paid for from a service that is attracting low income because cycling while important, often fun and healthy, is not a premium way to travel (sorry planners but in most cities you can't ride conveniently, in comfort and in safety everywhere). This means the return on investment has to come from a massive latent demand for bike travel which, in most cities, has not materialized. The bottom line is that if ride-hailing can't make a profit with almost zero assets, its hard to see how commercial bike-share can succeed outside of public subsidy.

Does this all mean dockless bike-share is dead. No. In the same way that micro-transit can, and must, succeed for future mobility not based on personal vehicle ownership and use, the model for bikeshare needs to be continually tested and refined. What this formula is may be depends on working with the public sector in new ways. Certainly in parallel with better bike infrastructure but also with crowdsourcing and crowdfunding to develop better experiences for users, more security for investors and more confidence for planners. It may also require a broader look at the platform economies with better ways to guarantee rides that suit users (Jump's e-bikes for instance), options for bad weather, and complementary services packages that bring bikes to businesses at the end of the day., offer home delivery of luggage, or being met by Skip the Dishes when you roll in at home.

Whatever the future of the business Ofo, it will be interesting to see the bike-share business model continue to evolve. I am sure we will continue to see this area evolve and eventually find a winning formula because one thing isn't changing, we need micro-mobility to help save our cities.




Disrupting transportation: The birth of new mobility authorities

In 1997 Kodak posted its highest ever quarterly profits. By 2012 it was bankrupt. This was not the result of fewer photographs being taken, indeed billions of images are taken every day now, but a systemic failure of Kodak to adapt to the disruption created by digital cameras. Kodak denied the existential threat of free, perfect and instant online image sharing and refused to believe their global dominance could be challenged. This is far from the only industry giant being on the wrong side of technological history and, unless transit agencies change radically, it is a trajectory that could all but wipe out traditional mass transportation.

Transportation planning grew out of the need to predict and accommodate growth in the demand for mobility resulting from changes in land use and population. The allocation of transportation capacity whether by building roads or train tracks then had impacts on land value and settlement further tightening the transportation-land use relationship. The underlying premise was growth – more and more capacity linked to economic prosperity in a constant search for speed. The political focus on fast, individually owned car-based travel rather than the ‘socialist’ option of mass transit, has shaped the developed world.

We continue to use the same growth-based forecasts and capacity-growing models albeit relatively recent environmental policies that have diversified the outputs to include transit, cycling and walking. Long-range strategies are commonplace that suggest huge rises in demand resulting from urban migration, to be met by investments in the capacity of transit, cycling and walking rather than driving. While some cities have made significant progress with shifting the balance of travel behaviour, overall the decades of auto-based development have proven extremely stubborn to change when considered at the scale of the metropolitan area.

The outcome is increasing congestion, wasted resources, lost time and damage to the environment. The traditional toolbox of effective interventions available to the planner include the glacially slow process of land use policy, and the politically toxic short-term option of congestion pricing. Technology is now however presenting a third way, one that could either decimate the edifice of traditional transportation or transform it for the better.

It is an established fact that when a household buys its first automobile transit use can reduce by half or more with similar falls in other non-driving modes (Goodwin et al). The sunk-investment and the invisibility of the many variable costs of vehicle ownership compared to pay-per-use transit, also tend to increase personal mileage travelled. Average automobile use in the United States is now around 294 hours per year (American Automobile Association, 2016). While widely reported as an indictment on congestion, this also shows that average use is less than one hour per day. Coupled with largely unchanging average vehicle occupancy of just 1.59 people per vehicle (US Dept of Energy, 2010) automobile use is hugely inefficient and hence an opportunity.

Mass public transit has struggled to meet this opportunity in an affordable way due to the dispersed demands created by land use. More recently, trends in consumerism enabled by personal, connected technology have further highlighted how fixed schedule transit is out of step with modern on-demand services. Coupled with falling investment in the upkeep of facilities and services, it is unsurprising that the US DoT’s National Transit Database shows transit ridership fell in 31 of 35 major US metropolitan areas in 2017.

This stalemate between inefficient, but locked-in automobile use, and inadequate transit alternatives presented a commercial opportunity for tech companies who saw how they could use their experience with platforms, social networking and user experience design to turn transportation into an on-demand service. New interfaces, data collection and assignment algorithms revolutionized car sharing from a cumbersome phone-based booking system to an instant short-term hire option and gave rise to the idea of ridehailing services, that provide a platform for directly connecting empty car seats with passengers. 

The asset-lite model and growth demonstrated by ridehailing’s ‘Transit Network Companies such as Uber has generated an explosion of investment for innovative start-ups. Among the most disruptive ideas, is dynamic pooling, in the form of shared ridehailing or ‘micro-transit’. These services use AI to match different trip requests into a route and allow the passengers to share the cost. To date, micro-transit has struggled to find a successful commercial model, but it is only a matter of time. Alongside, improving computer power, two likely routes to profitability include public subsidy by progressive agencies, and private investment in automation to remove driver overheads.

The investment, pace and innovation enabled by technology is overwhelming government’s ability to respond or adapt. Rather than embrace the opportunity, many authorities have attempted to maintain the status quo through restrictive legislation. Others have adopted an official position of believing these services can be contained to support existing strategies that envisage traditional transit and active transportation as the solution to urban mobility.  Both of these strategies have been tried before in other industries facing disruptive technological development and both have failed.

While it is tempting to see an approaching cataclysm for the transit industry, the outcome of technology in transportation is neither certain nor clear. While privatization and increased auto dependency may out-compete transit with all the negatives this could imply, it could also provide the illusive means to decouple ownership from mobility and in so doing, enable demand to be managed effectively and fairly through price.  To achieve this outcome, it will be important to create a market for shared mobility, to encourage shared mobility services to meet demand, and to introduce mobility pricing once sharing has eroded private ownership to a tipping point. 

We know how to change mobility behaviour, transportation demand management (TDM) programs such as the UK Sustainable Travel Towns (2004-08) produced sustained shifts of 10% or more from driving at low costs. Major investment in TDM coupled with new mobility services could be expected to create much larger shifts. The evidence for this thinking is the effectiveness of multi-channel preventative health care that routinely invests heavily in preventative techniques alongside medical treatments to improve health outcomes.

During a sustained period of TDM allied to the refinement of new mobility services, the legislative and regulatory changes could be put in place to secure a new mobility culture. New bodies would be formed from operational transit agencies that would become central data warehouses for all licensed or franchised services, this data would permit fine-tuned public policy tools using dynamic pricing and incentives for mobility behaviours that match the physical, social and environmental capacity of the system. This architecture would be invisible to the user behind an automated trip planning, payment, and fulfillment platform (Mobility as a Service). Over time, purchase of a private vehicle could be increasingly taxed in parallel to the expansion and refinement of a mobility alternatives ranging from bicycles, to city vehicles, micro transit, long distance hire vehicles and high-quality mass transit. Perhaps all of these services would be operated by the private sector under franchises that paid corridor or operator rents or per-trip taxes for the upkeep of publicly owned infrastructure.

This future is radically different to today and assumes centralized mobility authorities with the mandate and skills to operate MaaS platforms and coordinate all mobility across a city or region. It requires a dramatic change away from long-term predictive strategies towards adaptive demand management plans based on experimentation and research. It also requires new powers and political decisiveness to allow data-sharing and collaboration with new service providers to solve the big challenges of sustainable mobility. It requires higher levels of government to support automotive industries and labour organizations in transition to shared fleets and automation. Most of all, it requires us all to accept that technology will irreversibly change transportation and possibly within a single generation.

Automated vehicles - auto industry takes the lead

This recently released report from Navigant made me think hard about the impact of who is leading advances in automation.

The report states that the big auto manufacturers are now moving from their research phases into production engineering for launch in a couple of years. An example of this is that GM has voluntarily sent a safety report to the US Federal government along with a request for permission to start real-world testing of vehicles without steering wheels from next year (2019).

The leaders chart in Navigant's report also shows is that all the hyperbole about Apple, Uber and Tesla is misplaced. Auto manufacturers are now far ahead having not only the financial capacity to run rapid development, but also the market knowledge to shape its introduction to the public.

AV Industry Leaders Chart - Navigant Research

Navigant 2017 AV leaders.jpeg

On the plus side, the advances in AV technology are clearly moving faster than many forecasted. This is great news for the development of machine learning, road safety and vehicle efficiency. On the negative, we have to look at the nature and motivations of the industry leaders. Not that tech companies are beneficent by nature, but the auto industry has grown on retailing and so will naturally favour the business they know by marketing and pricing strategies to promote sales of private AVs. 

Making AVs affordable may mean that GM, Ford, Volkswagen etc. accept loosing billions early on until a few gain market dominance through either technological break-throughs (think AVs in snow) or, less positively, through effective lobbying to reduce regulation. These losses will be an acceptable business strategy and there is no shortage of speculative investors as we see from stories about dockless bike sharing. 

If new AVs fall within reach of the average car-owning household the pessimist in me sees a series of knock-on effects.

  1. Private vehicle owners don't seem keen on peer-to-peer car sharing, so one efficiency option is doubtful.
  2. We know that vehicle ownership induces more vehicle travel and dramatically less use of alternatives.
  3. With the ownership market unchanged,  'Robo-Ubers' will be forced to fight harder for the transit dollar to turn a so-far elusive profit.
  4. Public transit services will have to reduce under less revenue and creeping privatization.
  5. Low-income people and people priced out of living downtown, will become more isolated.
  6. With more vehicle mobility and a downward spiral of public funding, it will be easy to restrict access and rights to walk and cycle. 

This does not produce the cities we are planning for. 

But the optimist in me can't shake the idea that we still have the chance to put the incredible advances in technology to positive use. To achieve this we need government to work with industries to:

  • Make brave political decisions to regulate services and instigate price controls to meet publicly debated environmental, social and economic commitments.
  • Describe and accept a new reality of sustainable auto-based mobility with an increasing role for private companies in diverse public networks.
  • Actively protect our downtowns and neighbourhoods as spaces for people.
  • Create a social safety net for personal mobility.

We can't stop private investment literally driving the future of mobility, but we can steer it before it goes on auto pilot.


Is it time TDM had an image makeover? While we cherish our custodianship of GHG reduction, health promotion and active transportation like some sort of CSR team for the transportation industry, with few exceptions, we aren't taken seriously when the big money decisions are taken.

The timing is perfect, the shift towards mobility services is creating turmoil in traditional transportation planning because never before has the threat to public transit as we know it, been so existential. City bikes, car sharing, ride-sourcing, micro-transit and ultimately automated taxis are seen by many as setting the scene for a series of adapt-or-perish decisions by transit agencies.

Consider also that within 2-3 years, multiple cities will have service providers offering monthly or pay-as-you-go contracts covering multiple modes (transportation-as-a-service or TaaS). The opportunity here is to influence the necessary legislative framework for taxation and for this revenue to flow back to the public agencies that will be providing the infrastructure, if not the services. Where there is a taxation mechanism there is an opportunity to create a tariff structure based on policy. This means TDM could become choice architects and decouple vehicle ownership from mobility by defining credits for cycling or sharing, levying premiums on solo peak time driving and designing concessions.

New terminology is already entering the lexicon, 'Integrated Mobility' and 'Mobility Management' are not necessarily new, EPOMM (European Platform on Mobility Management) has been existence since 1997, but the meaning is evolving fast. In North America especially, cities are scrambling to be 'smart' and mobility management is beginning to represent the technical rather than the behavioural aspects of transportation. TDM needs to reclaim this emerging field based on hard-earned skills in the field working between private and public agencies and adapting to all sorts of opportunities.

My hope is that soon governments will start establishing mobility watchdogs, let's use the UK phraseology and call it The Office on Mobility or OFFMOB. OFFMOB would be responsible for the taxation and financial framework necessary to manage the business of mobility. It would enact policy through taxation of these services and be able to reinvest hypothecated revenue to support research, innovation and service subsidies not likely through commercial development alone. OFFMOB could lead a root and branch review of the role and definition of public transit, creating new agencies, and placing more risk (and reward) in the private sector to operate regulated services while protecting public interest by retaining the infrastructure assets.

OFFMOB would be a place where TDM would come out of the shadows to be the real business of transportation planning in a world where transportation is in your pocket.


6:30am on a hotel shuttle to the airport for an 8am flight is when I read the check-in time advice. "Travelling to the US from Canada? We advise arriving 2.5 hours in advance of your flight". Of course, I understand that airports build in safety factors and think about peak times so I assume I am in good shape. Arriving at the Toronto Pearson Terminal 1 at 6:40am I was therefore stunned to see the line up for security, 2.5 hours seemed accurate, I began to worry.

While standing in the line, I took a deep breath and drifted off to think about airport wayfinding design. Before 9/11, the ground-side - that area outside of security - was populated by newsagents, cafes and concessions. Now architects realize that the time and stress of getting through our various layers of security have moved the enjoyment of flying and the balance of commercial space to the airside. Outside of airside, the world is all about finding check-in, processing baggage and negotiating border controls - it's more about crowd-management than experiential design. 

For the wayfinding designer, there is hence a special need to make ground-side navigation simple and unmistakeable. Visual cues are much more important than signage and maps in busy and frenetic environments where people want to follow the herd and find it difficult to stop and read. Where information is needed, it must be unmissable, paired down to the minimum to avoid misunderstanding and even so, repeated several times. 

Airside however, modern airports transform in tandem with the almost audible sigh of relief from passengers. Airside the experience begins. Now the wayfinding designer is playing negotiator between the interests of the airline to get people to the gate without delay and the interest of the airport to have people indulge in the retail therapy that goes hand in hand with the vacation spirit.

Of course, like me, not all travellers get through to airside with time to browse the scents, small leathers and books. For me, on this day, airside means gate identification, estimating the journey time and wondering if there's time for coffee en route. Here wayfinding designers must practice the careful, considered process of progressively disclosing a hierarchy of information, a bread crumb trail providing just enough information to provide confidence but not overwhelm. 

I made my flight sans coffee, but with a renewed appreciation for how wayfinding is often the unsung hero of our busy lives.

Wayfinding collector

I am willing to bet that anyone who has worked seriously in planning or designing wayfinding will sooner or later fall into the habit of taking pictures of great or terrible signs and maps. I freely admit that amongst the family pictures and landscapes of my vacation photographs are a suspiciously large number of directional signs, bus stops, maps and wayfinding ephemera. 

It is not just the endless demands of presentations and case study references that drive this collecting of examples but the endless variation in style, form, successes and more often than not, failures to communicate where you are, which way you are facing and what your options are that fascinates me. What my growing library suggests is that the seemingly simple task of navigating our cities is just as much hindered as helped by attempts to give information. 

While there are examples of utterly terrible clutter, inaccuracy and carelessness, more often than not some of the smaller details are the ones that get to me now. I cannot claim absolute authority on anything of course, especially as I am not a trained graphic designer, but some ideas have seeped into my head so solidly that when I see different direction arrows all ranged to one side of a sign, or more than five destinations stacked one on the other, I sigh inwardly.

Maps are infinitely more complex to get right than directions and so examples able to stand next to the British Ordnance Survey are hard to find. I have a bookshelf stuffed with maps collected from transit systems, tourism agencies and assorted retailers from around the world, few offer the 'glance or study' opportunities of skilled cartography . Of course, one of the reasons for this is our love affair with driving. While the Ordnance Survey was, as the name suggests, prepared for mostly unmotorized military logistics, the major growth in maps in North America at least, came about as a response to our enormous road building projects.

The needs of the driver are in many ways much simpler than those on foot or horse, gradients and landmarks become obsolete as references, tracks and other paths not accessible to the automobile disappear from relevance and the map becomes a series of wider or narrower tracks on a featureless plain between indistinct settlements and attractions. Re-building our understanding of the walkability of our environments could be greatly enhanced by better maps (IMHO) - they are expensive but so, so worth the effort.


A map fresco from the Vatican. The scale may be fanciful, but you bet the cartographer understood what it was like to walk

A map fresco from the Vatican. The scale may be fanciful, but you bet the cartographer understood what it was like to walk

Who, what is the near market?

I first encountered the idea of a near market while working at Transport for London with the cycle planning legend Rose Ades. Having created the Cycling Centre of Excellence at TfL, Rose had commissioned market research into who could be encouraged to ride more in the UK capital. The resulting study suggested a segment of about 10% who clearly intended to start cycling but had not yet done so. Their 'nearness' to the objective of increasing the number of cyclists provided a name for this group and a focus for TfL's subsequent marketing work.  I think anyone visiting Central London now would agree this strategy has helped cycling become a huge success and one that has diversified the demographic make-up on cycle routes there.

The advantage of segmentation like near markets for cycling, transit, walking or vehicle sharing, is that it allows real focus on people who have intent even if habit and conditions mean they are holding back. Narrowing down the barriers to cross makes behaviour change that little bit easier. Those with fewest barriers might only require application of a behavioural insight to nudge them into trial and from there into new behaviours. Others may find the opportunity and confidence through more structured site-based travel plans to address the remaining barriers to express a latent choice.

Near market analysis does however represent a bit of a change of mindset from traditional 'information-out' transit  marketing. Near market projects are sharply focused and require the sometimes difficult realization that many people might only change over time or with enormous effort.