With the rise of bike sharing platforms in China and elsewhere, it is worthwhile to consider the future of the bicycle. Despite the hype around autonomous vehicles and the Hyperloop, the bike may actually hold the true key to having accessible and livable cities across the globe. However, in order for this form of guilt-free mobility to conquer the world institutional innovation is needed still.
- As we observed before, several Chinese bicycle sharing startups, e.g. Ofo and Mobike, have secured hundreds of millions of USD in investments and offer a total of three million “dockless” bikes. Mobike also plans to develop additional services, such as personalized and location-based advertising.
- Dockless bikes will also appear outside of Asia. oBike from Singapore has placed its dockless bikes in Rotterdam. Mobike will soon offer bikes in Manchester and, just like Ofo, expand its network across the globe. Amsterdam is already home to two European bike sharing platforms; Donkey Republic from Denmark and domestic FlickBike.
- The Dutch Railways struggles to keep up with the growing demand for the rental bikes it offers at train stations. New bikes to solve current shortages are therefore flown in from China.
- Research has shown that cycling in New York is often faster than a taxi, for distances up to several kilometres, especially during rush hour. The number of New Yorkers riding a bike regularly has increased by 50% since 2009. The number of bicycle commuters has even doubled.
- Starting in China and more recently in Europe, e-bikes have grown popular quickly. Research is still scarce, but it also seems that e-bike adoption can actually lead to a reduced use of cars and public transport.
- Cities around the world strive to become friendlier towards pedestrians and cyclists. In practice, this implies that roads are made car-free and dedicated routes for cycling are created, such as the elevated bicycle freeway in Xiamen.
Increasing congestion in urban centers makes cars less and less a sensible means of transportation. The bicycle presents a good alternative: it is often faster, cheaper, healthier, non-polluting, and arguably more fun. Bike sharing platforms also allow that cycling can easily be used in combination with a car or public transport. Despite these advantages, the share of bikes in everyday transport is rather low in most countries.
To give bicycles a fair chance, institutional innovation is needed and rules need to be rewritten.
Short-term technological innovation may help to some extent (e.g. e-bikes overcome issues with distances and hilliness), but for many uses, the bike is fine as it is. Nonetheless, there’s a world to win in terms of infrastructure. Separate lanes for cyclists, for instance, would increase safety enormously. The underlying problem, however, maybe in the current institutional landscape which discourages cycling. In the innovation literature, institutions are understood as the formal and informal “rules” (regulations, norms, and ideas) that prescribe our behavior.
Except for places like Copenhagen and The Netherlands, these rules tend to favor the car over the bicycle. For instance, cities and businesses are expected to provide ample parking spaces for cars, while cyclists are often left to their own devices. In a wider sense, accessibility of cities is predominantly understood as accessibility-by-car and other modes are often overlooked. To give bicycles a fair chance, institutional innovation is needed and rules need to be rewritten. This is, however, very much a political dilemma affecting those living in the city, for whom public transport and bikes are fine, and those for whom the car is much more a necessity.
Interestingly, the new bike-sharing schemes may help to rewrite the rules. First, they offer easy and cheap access to bikes for cycling novices and non-urbanites. Second, their rapid growth, and the problems that come with it, may work as a crowbar for institutional innovation, forcing local authorities to embrace bikes faster than they would otherwise.