Success recipe for bikesharing systems: good design and great operations

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What are the commonalities of Paris, Mainz and Stockholm? They all offer bikesharing. Since I have been visiting all of these cities in the past three weeks, I have decided to try them out (see matrix below for more). The main lesson learnt: focus on the end user and offer a system that is simple and convenient with bikes and stations everywhere that are in tiptop shape.

Vélib, Paris showcase public bikesharing system has been in place since 2007. It’s a spectacular mega project with over 20,000 bikes and over 1,800 stations. It’s impossible not to notice the bikes: they are everywhere and both, residents and tourists, are using the system. I was impressed with its simplicity. Registration is incredibly easy: if you have a valid credit card, you can purchase a 7 day pass at any of the 1,800 stations in about ten minutes. Renting a bike is also simple, you enter the scratch code of your 7 day pass at the station, choose a bike et voilà I enjoyed a bike ride into town along Canal St. Martin’s bike path. Returning the bike was quick and painless, you push a slider on the side of the bike into the docking station and wait for the green light to blink.

Compared to Paris, Mainz and Stockholm’s shared bike systems are much smaller in scale: Stockholm’s Citybikes offers about 1,000 bikes at 140 stations and Mainz’s MVGMeinRad has a fleet of 900 bikes and about 120 stations. Stockholm’s bikes and website have great design but I was disappointed with the availability and functionality. I believe Citybikes network is not dense enough for large scale adoption. But then again, perhaps the focus is on tourists more than residents because you can buy three day passes at 7-Elevens, kiosks or hotels. While I loved the funky look of the bikes, I did not like renting them: the docking stations and the bikes themselves were awkward. While typical for Sweden, I didn’t find the small front wheel or the coaster brake (back pedal) comfortable. Besides, two out of three bikes either squealed or squeaked and I didn’t exactly feel safe riding them. Releasing the bike from and returning it to the docking station also proved a hassle: you have to lift the bike and push a little fork with two balls into the docking station. It’s not a quick way to return a bike and it malfunctioned on one of three occasions.

The size of MVGMeinRad makes sense for Mainz because it is a small city with just over 202,000 inhabitants, 10 times less than Paris. The system is well linked with other public transit options and I was impressed by how closely MVGMeinRad monitors the use of stations. They add or remove the number of docking stations depending on the analysis of historical data. You can find bikes easily as soon as you get off a tram or bus. Unfortunately, it is not possible to register with MVGMeinRad unless you have a German bank account. Luckily I got an inside scoop of the system and could test it. I have a lot of respect for the operators of  MVGMeinRad is: they take great pride in this local project and ensure that the bikes are perfectly clean and maintained by professional bike mechanics. It was the smoothest ride of all three systems. And clearly the residents of Mainz appreciate the system: this May, after three years in operations, MVGMeinRad has reached the 1 millionth rental.

Shared mobility systems offers a service with a transportation vehicle. When building the infrastructure, like bikes and bike stations, the focus should be on simple design that is easy to use. But when operating a system, the focus should be on good service. The hospitality industry has understood long ago that guests not only care about a great architecture but also about safety, cleanliness and well maintained facilities. Successful shared mobility systems copy that approach and integrate good design with great operations.

FeatureMainzParisStockholm
# of bikes/stations900 bikes/ 120 Stations20k bikes/1,8k stations1k bikes/140 stations
Docking stationlift bike, dock through ball on front locks into stationpush bike, side slider locks into station, confirmation when successful: green light and beeplift bike, movable fork with two balls locks into station, confirmation when successful: green light to red
Bike featureslight, gear shift, regular brakes, basket or case on rattraplight, 3 gears, regular brakes, basket in front, locklight, 1 gear, back pedal brake, no basket
Payment optionsonly with German bank accountcredit cardcredit card, cash
Signup optionsonline or paperbackat station, onlineat select locations, online
Subscription Options7 different abos (German residents only)4 different types of abos (3 for residents, 1 for tourists)2 different abos (1 for residents, 1 for tourists)
Accesswith card only at stationscratchcode card at station, seasonal card on RFID reader of bike docking stationRFID card at station
Pricing structurepricing per 30 minutesfirst 30 minutes free3 hours free
Bike experiencesturdy, well maintainedsturdy, well maintainedflimsy front wheel, 2/3 bikes squealed and squeaked

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