Friday, July 30, 2010

Bike share as service design

Recently Melbourne launched a bicycle share scheme. The uptake so far has been low. There have been suggestions that this is due, at least in part, to the launch taking place in winter.

However, an important factor is that in Australia it is mandatory to wear a helmet when cycling, and the scheme does not provide helmets. The first photograph contains, to my mind, both question and answer. The tag is "Short trip? Why not take a bike?". At the bottom right is a "safety first" image of an encased head, showing precisely why it is inconvenient to take a bike for that short trip.

I don't want to join the debate about whether bicycle helmets should be mandatory, but for those not familiar with the debate, it can be summarised as follows:

Advocates of mandated helmets state that individual cyclists are offered some protection in the event of an accident. Opponents point out that cycling rates go down when helmets are made compulsory, that accident rates increase when cyclist numbers decrease (essentially because more cyclists leads to better awareness among drivers as well as better socialised behaviour by cyclists themselves), and that significant health benefits to society are accordingly sacrificed when fewer people ride. At the end of the page there are some links you might want to follow, but let me warn you in advance that the topic is muddy, and that there is considerable vehemence on each side.

In any case, I was in Melbourne for a day to listen to Mikael Colville-Andersen, a Danish film-maker and photographer who runs an extremely popular cycling blog called Copenhagenize, and whom I interviewed recently for the User Experience podcast. He was in Melbourne as part of Victoria's "State of Design" festival.

It seemed like an ideal time to try the bike hire scheme. I'd first seen it on the day it opened, back in June, and indeed had a brief introductory spin, sans helmet, at that time. Since then the number of stations has been increased, and the central business district is liberally supplied with bike stations, as the map shows.

Being a bit geeky, I actually have a bicycle helmet in a locker in Melbourne, so I didn't have the problem of finding a helmet, nor of risking a fine for not wearing one. Ironically, my locker is at the RACV club. The RACV operates the scheme and, also perhaps ironically, is a motoring association (the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria), although it has advocated for cyclists and transport alternatives in recent years.

I spent a couple of minutes at each of two bike hire stations, and saw three groups of people approach, read some of the material, and leave specifically because of the helmet issue. The comments I overheard were "Where do you get the helmets?" and "Oh, you need to have helmets" (twice). Of course my small sample is not sufficient to estimate the extent of the problem, but to have seen clearly demonstrated instances of people being in effect actively turned away should be a great cause of concern for the scheme's success.

The actual process of hiring a bike is relatively straightforward, although one station rejected my credit card and then apparently crashed.

I was amused to see the terms and conditions screens (pictured). Anyone who has observed real people interact with online forms and websites (I've done so several hundred times in the course of my work) will know that nobody except people like me ever reads them. They're a great example of the triumph of fear and legal opinion over logic and common sense. As the picture shows, reading the terms and conditions would require the user to scroll through 72 screens - surely some sort of world record. While this is a minor point (since people can just skip them instead), it does perhaps indicate that the design has not been entirely free of political debate.

Once I'd paid my money and received a PIN to unlock a bike, I had some trouble recognising that the implied rectangles (1, 2, 3) on the bike docks were actually buttons. After a bit of flailing, I finally figured out that they were the only possibility. A few days later when going through my pocket detritus I noticed a little image on my printed receipt did show this, but painting button-like icons on the panels would make it easy to interpret without the need for instruction.

To the bikes themselves:

They are comfortable, and have an adjustable saddle. I did what many people probably would, choosing one that was  about the right  height, and didn't bother adjusting it.

They have three gears, using the now very common Shimano Nexus hub gears. The gearing is perfectly adequate for cycling around Melbourne. I went up and down several of the few minor hills that Melbourne city centre has to offer. First gear was perfectly adequate for going uphill, and third gear was fine for pedalling along comfortably, though not at great speed (and I never had the feeling of "Oh my God, I'm glad I'm wearing a helmet").

Being too much a cheapskate to go beyond the half-hour limit (after which a timed usage fee applies), I just rode around the city centre, including most of the main streets. I also cycled along the Yarra river through Southbank, and along parts of St Kilda Rd, before returning the bike.

During that time, I saw no other rider on a shared bikes, although there were plenty of people riding. The weather was cool and dry (it had rained earlier in the day) and pretty much ideal for riding. Several people commented on the bike. "There's one of the new bikes" was the general theme, and the bike was the topic of a few conversations when stopped at traffic lights.

I used the term "service design" in the title of this post because to me it's clear that the scheme provides a fine bike, but fails to complete the job and provide a service. In order to provide a service, there are really only two options:

  1. Agitate for mandatory helmet laws to be repealed, at least for the shared bikes, or
  2. Provide helmets.

Some links

On the morning of the same day that I tried the bikes, Mike Rubbo led a helmet-free ride to protest the need for helmets.

The Age, a Melbourne newspaper, has an article on the scheme and the helmet issue.

The Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation is an organisation set up to "to undertake, encourage, and spread the scientific study of the use of bicycle helmets". It's probably fair to say that its stance is anti-helmet, and it's not clear whether the site is actively maintained, but it has plenty of links.

The Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute is the "helmet advocacy program of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association" and is strongly pro-helmet.

And finally, check out the inspirational little video that Mikael did for the City of Copenhagen.


  1. Interesting post Gerry, thanks. I live in Melbourne but wasn't aware of the new bikes. It's sad that a good idea might be perceived as a failure due to not really thinking through the realities of how or what users would use the bikes. For example, I could see it being great for tourists, but what tourist is going to have a spare helmet on them? Interesting too that the argument turns to changing a law for these types of bikes rather than considering a design that includes helmets :)

  2. Anonymous9:21 am

    Gerry, nice blog. I like the brief overview of the helmet argument (as opposed to an extended diatribe which we get so often). I'm sure I would have seen you in Melbourne. It sounds like we were all around the same area that weekend.

    There are a few other problems that you missed but you can catch up on by reading my girlfriend's blog

    Irrespective of the focus on helmets, there are other things they've missed.

    Nice photo with the terms and conditions! You should try hiring two bikes like we did, it's much more confusing...

    Additionally, I live 3 km from the city in a beachside suburb, which would be good for tourists, but there are no bikes out here. It's a shame because it misses taking people into the city. It's only for people already there. How do people get there? Often on public transport, if they've already paid for a ticket, they don't need to pay more for a bike.

    In my blog I wrote about different transport options and how public transport is expensive for short trips.

    It's too bad because I'd consider riding bike share bikes to the city over a tram any day if it were available.

  3. They've finally done a scheme for selling bike helmets for $5 (with a $3 return if you take it back to 7-11 outlets). Seems to me the first thing anyone would do is buy all the helmets and sell them on eBay for substantial profit.

  4. Limit one per customer ;>)

    But that's a great idea!