Bike-sharing scheme back in the saddle

Public bike sharing is making a comeback in Singapore, more than three years after an earlier scheme was scrapped due to low ridership.

A group of investors, led by avid cyclist Francis Chu, is planning to launch a pilot programme here as early as January next year.

The new project, said Mr Chu, is modelled after successful bike-sharing schemes in London and Paris.

‘A successful bike-sharing scheme will not only help increase the number of cyclists here but also create safer roads for them,’ he said. The 51-year-old, who is also a founder of local cycling group Lovecycling.sg, said he wants to make cycling more viable as a form of transportation for commuters here.

And he believes that by promoting cycling as a ‘last-mile connection’ between a bus terminal or train station and their workplace, more people might be inclined to use public transport instead.

Cities such as London, Melbourne and even Hangzhou in China, have in recent years, turned to public bike-sharing schemes to provide commuters with an alternative and more environmentally friendly way of travelling.

The scheme essentially gives commuters affordable access to bicycles for short-distance trips. Users simply check-out a bike from automated bike stations or docks, and returned it after they are done with it.

Most of these docking stations are located near bus stops and train terminals within city centres.

Named Isuda, which stands for ‘easy, fast and access’ in Mandarin, Mr Chu’s model will feature mobile docking stations instead.

He said this will reduce the time needed to redistribute the bikes to different areas, depending on demand, and trim his operational costs by about two-thirds.

Designs for the mobile docking stations are being finalised, said Mr Chu, a former product designer with electronics giant Philips. But he has already received approval from JTC Corporation to run a three-month trial at research hub one-north from January next year.

Under the pilot programme, users will pay $50 to access Isuda bikes over the three-month trial.

During the trial, Isuda bike stations will be positioned at two points; one-north MRT station and Chromos, a complex in Biopolis.

A cycling route from the MRT station to Chromos has been identified, said Mr Chu. He is now waiting for the nod from the National Parks Board and Land Transport Authority to make use of the route for the pilot programme.

Mr Chu said he chose one-north for the trial because of the high number of foreign researchers working there. ‘They tend to have a better appreciation of cycling as a means of transport, and there’s a better opportunity for it to be introduced as a mode of commuting there.’

IT consultant Kevin Wu, who works at the Singapore Science Park, said he would sign up for the bike-sharing scheme if it was extended to his workplace.

‘To get to my workplace, I have to walk 15 minutes from the MRT station or take a shuttle bus, which can be very inconsistent,’ said the 30-year-old.

‘A bike-sharing scheme would definitely solve this problem.’

The Isuda scheme will be funded by Mr Chu, as well as several other investors such as local workspace provider SmartSpace. Transport consultant Tham Chen Munn is also one of the partners in Isuda.

If it proves to be successful, Mr Chu intends to expand the programme to nearby areas such as Buona Vista MRT station, Kent Ridge, Singapore Science Park and Ayer Rajah Crescent.

Future plans could also include extending the bike-sharing network to the Marina Bay area and Central Business District.

‘Ultimately, it’s our ambition to expand to all of Singapore,’ he said.

While the pilot will be operated manually – a staffer will be present at each point to hand out the bikes – Mr Chu plans to install automated systems at each of his mobile stations in time to come.

There are more than 200 bike-sharing programmes in various parts of the world, most started only in recent years.

In 2004, NTUC Income wheeled out a programme called Town Bike at four housing estates here, but it folded four years later in 2008.

A former employee who worked on the programme said Town Bike saw very low usage.

Speaking to The Sunday Times on condition of anonymity, he said heavy traffic on the roads, unfriendly weather and the lack of a dedicated cycling route were the key bugbears to the scheme then.

‘It was a little too early for our time,’ he added. ‘Perhaps it might be different now.’

Mr Tham, however, believes conditions are ripe for a bike-sharing scheme here.

‘Worldwide, there’s also been a revival in bike sharing. Many cities, like New York, are starting these schemes. In Singapore’s context, if not now, then when?’ he said.

Indeed, the Government has since committed $43 million to improve cycling infrastructure islandwide. Besides the existing cycling town of Tampines, a 13.3km cycling network will be ready by next year at Pasir Ris. Sembawang and Taman Jurong will be also transformed into cycling towns next year, followed by Changi-Simei, Bedok and Marina Bay two years later.

Mr Tom Keeble, an Australian biomedical scientist working at Biopolis, feels there is ‘massive pent-up demand in Singapore for people to get on their bikes’.

‘It’s a chicken-and-egg situation,’ said the 31-year-old, who cycles to work daily.

‘Until you provide infrastructure for people to get on their bikes, people won’t get on their bikes.’

Other bike-sharingschemes

Hangzhou, China

With more than 60,000 bicycles, the bike sharing scheme introduced by The Hangzhou Bicycle Company in May 2008 is among the largest in the world.

There are about 2,400 bike stations in the city centre, each spaced less than 300m apart and located near public bus stops and train stations.

The first hour is free, but it costs one yuan (20 Singapore cents) for the subsequent three hours. Each additional hour thereafter costs three yuan.

Tourists have to put in a refundable deposit of 300 yuan for each bike they check out.

The firm behind the scheme says an average of 240,000 trips are made daily. It plans to expand the scheme to 175,000 bikes by 2020.

London, Britain

The £140 million (S$285 million) Barclays Cycle Hire scheme started in July last year with 5,000 bikes, deployed through 315 permanent docking stations.

These stations are based every 300m or so throughout the city centre, including near famous landmarks like Hyde Park.

The programme has since expanded to about 6,000 bicycles and 400 stations.

It cost £1 to hire a bike for a day, £5 per week or £45 for the entire year. The first half hour is free, with additional charges thereafter.

More than four million journeys have been made since the scheme was launched. On average, 25,000 trips are made daily.

Melbourne, Australia

The Melbourne Bike Share scheme kicked off in June last year with 600 bicycles.

The scheme’s 50 docking stations are located mainly in the Melbourne central business district.

Subscriptions cost A$2.50 (S$3.25) for a day, A$8 per week or A$50 per year. Like in London, the first half hour is free, with additional charges thereafter.

News reports from Down Under indicate that ridership numbers have fallen short of expectations. Experts say the scheme has failed to take off mainly due to mandatory helmet laws, which require cyclists to wear helmets when riding bikes.

Paris, France

The Velib bicycle-sharing scheme was launched in July 2007, and cyclists can bike past landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower.

There are about 20,000 bikes and 1,800 stations, each located about 300m apart in Paris.

The scheme sees between 80,000 to 120,000 rentals each day, and hit the 100 million-trip milestone in June this year.

Velib requires subscriptions that cost 1.70 euros (S$3) per day, eight euros per week, or 29 euros per year. Half-hour rides are free upon subscription but each additional half-hour costs one euro for up to 1.5 hours. After that, each additional half-hour costs two euros.

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