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Cycling, a sustainable, healthy, and low-cost mode of travel, has seen a resurgence in popularity during the pandemic as cars and buses stayed off the roads. During the lockdown in the UK, cycle-to-work schemes saw a 200% rise in bicycle orders from emergency workers. In India, according to the All India Cycle Manufacturers Association, the cycling industry is expected to grow between 15-20% in 2020, from previous year’s growth rate of 5-7%.
With traffic levels in cities returning to almost pre-pandemic levels, it is important to keep the momentum for cycling going. Cities are actively planning infrastructure to encourage and foster non-motorized forms of transportation, such as walking or cycling, among commuters.
Cities should explore implementing Public Bicycle Sharing (PBS) systems, a flexible transport service where users can rent a cycle for short periods of time, making it a low-cost, sustainable, and socially distant mode of commute.
About 35% of vehicular trips in India are short trips (less than 5 kilometers) and form a huge potential market that can use cycles to travel. A PBS cycle allows citizens the flexibility of renting and sharing cycles for short trips at nominal rates, without the hassle of maintaining a cycle.
Most PBS users travel shorter distances on cycles (around 2 kilometers). PBS schemes located at public transport hubs in areas with low connectivity can help expand the reach of these services by providing first and last-mile services. Additionally, through innovative pricing models like long-term subscriptions, PBS systems provide affordable transit for a wide range of users.
PBS schemes usually have different types of cycles such as: regular bicycles, geared bicycles, electric bikes or pedal-assist cycles, and different rental models like one-time rental, subscriptions, and long-term rentals. Municipalities often deploy PBS as a part of citizen-centric services, while transport agencies, whose primary job is increasing ridership, deploy these schemes as feeders to their main transportation modes, such as buses or metros.
In Mysuru, Trin Trin, an initiative of Green Wheel Rides, has 450 cycles across 48 docking stations and used to service about 1,000 rides per day before COVID-19. Currently, the PBS offering is seeing 8-10 new registrations per day (usually recreational riders), and is witnessing 300-500 rides a day.
Besides Mysuru, Indian cities like Bhopal and Kochi have also implemented PBS systems. However, many Indian cities still struggle with challenges such as the lack of funds for walking and cycling projects, mismatched objectives, or simply the lack of an existing cycling culture and ecosystem.
A major stumbling block seems to be the business viability of PBS projects so far. When cycling enterprises and systems initially started taking shape in 2008-09, they primarily focused on implementing large-scale PBS in cities like Pune, Delhi, Coimbatore and Bhopal with conventional bicycles, while focusing on smaller pilots in other Indian cities.
In Mumbai, cycles formed an underwhelming 1% of all trips, far lower compared to other Indian cities. Through the Station Access and Mobility Program (STAMP), a challenge organized by WRI India and the Toyota Mobility Foundation with MMRDA and MMOPL, Mumbai has introduced cycles at multiple metro stations to provide more sustainable last-mile connectivity.
When a PBS project is launched in the new city, it attracts interest from recreational and curious riders, often driven by promotional discounts. However, the business model necessitates high capital expenditures of setting up stations and vehicles, high operational costs, but low rental charges (India being a price-sensitive market, as per a WRI India discussion with bicycle operators). Even though these schemes were aimed to provide an essential service to consumers, the low uptake by consumers resulted in enterprises to pull out of the market and cut their losses early.
To understand the financial requirements of running a PBS, we referred to a DPR (Detailed Project Report) for a bicycle plan in Pune that was drafted in 2017, with a plan for 4,500-5,000 bicycles across 388 stations. Capital costs of building infrastructure and buying cycles were pegged at between INR 481-731 million and recurring costs (operational, maintenance, etc.) between INR 124-166 million for the first year. However, revenue was estimated at only INR 40 million.
While projected costs decreased markedly over the years, the difference between revenue and operational costs remained significant, starting at more than INR 27,000 per bicycle in the first year and INR 16,000 in the seventh year. Similar numbers were calculated in a study for Panaji, showing that unless supported by infrastructure and a cycling culture, such initiatives can fail to make an impact.
The best approach to making PBS systems successful is to develop a strategy that can identify the right mix of providers, operating models and revenue streams that is cross-governed and deployed as a value creation for end users and for service generators. While PBS operators in India have experimented with some strategies in silos, a more participative approach by city stakeholders to deliver holistic solutions for the city is important.
In September 2020, WRI India and Karnataka’s Directorate of Urban Land Transport conducted a focus group discussion with Indian cycle operators who underscored the need for greater government intervention in creating infrastructure, setting policies, and co-funding PBS schemes., This is a follow up of DULT’s efforts to boost cycling in the city, after their innovative permit model for PBS provisioning in 2018.
So far, governments have kept a passive role and relied more on private investment, which has been successful only in a few counts. The Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs suggests that more government investments in pilot projects can help determine the best financial model for building and maintaining PBS systems.
A more commuter-centric approach also needs to be taken in order to create a proper end-to-end PBS system, focusing on ensuring safety, identifying areas more conducive to cycling, and experimenting with innovative customer acquisition models.
Views expressed here are the authors’ own.