Cycling in Brisbane – freedom of the city?

IMG_2642a-300x247We were sitting in Darwin airport at 1am (that’s the time most flights leave the Top End) wondering what to do with our 12 hour stopover in Brisbane. Was there a public bike scheme? An Internet check revealed CityCycle, and by our boarding call we’d successfully registered two IDs and passwords against a credit card – these are needed to borrow the bikes.

Unfortunately my android phone didn’t seem to be able to access the CityCycle map so we blundered around a bit at 7am finding a bike stand, but soon found a well stocked station with a row of nice yellow bikes. CityCycle uses the JC Decaux technology that is used for the Paris and Lyon Velib public bike schemes – bikes are solid, with moving parts protected, 3 speed gears, basket on the front, locked onto a pillar and released by keying in your id and password on a nearby control panel.

However none of the bikes had helmets, and helmets are compulsory in Queensland. And this seems to be the issue with the CityCycle implementation – they don’t seem to have thought through the helmet issue. In theory you can rent helmets, but there was no information at the stand on how you do this, and at 7am in the morning, no-one to ask. The website says they’ve belatedly equipped some bikes with helmets, so we set out in search, and after an interesting walk, eventually found two bikes with helmets, and were off.

Brisbane has a great river to cycle along: the spectacular Kurilpa Bridge lead us across to the Gallery precinct, then we set off down river past cafes, swimming pools and jetties to Captain Burke Park. I was pleased I had the helmet when a magpie dive bombed me – a common hazard of Australian cycling! Then we thought we’d better check how much the bikes were costing us, which you can do easily enough at one of the bike stand control panels. Turns out you get 30 min free, then pay a steadily increasing rate. So from there we got savvy, and navigated in 30 minute hops between bike stands, swapping bikes as we went. So back via the Botanic gardens to the Queen Street Mall, where we finally gave up the bikes and went into shopping and gallery mode.

So what’s the verdict on Brisbane’s version of the public bike concept? It looks great – the city is relatively flat, there are good bike paths along the river and cycle lanes in the city. The registration system is pretty straightforward, the stands are conveniently located and well stocked. However on a fine Saturday none of the crowds out and about were using the scheme – in the whole day we saw one other CityCycle user. My guess is that helmets are the problem – you can’t depend on finding one of the bikes with a helmet (we selfishly hung onto helmets when we swapped bikes), and having to carry a helmet discourages the kind of casual use that a public bike system caters for. Some people use this as an argument against the helmet law, but I don’t agree. NextBike in Auckland provided helmets without hassle. It would be very easy to adapt the locking system so that the helmet had to be present when the bike was returned – though in practice there didn’t seem to be an issue with helmets being stolen – most of the helmets we saw were just sitting in the bike baskets. If people were funny about sharing helmets, you could come up with disposable hairnets or somesuch.

The lesson for a future Wellington public bike scheme (and I think the Wellington CBD would be an excellent location) is that helmets have to be built into the scheme, and cyclists have to be consulted so the scheme is a real component of the transport system, rather than an adjunct to an advertising deal.

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4 thoughts on “Cycling in Brisbane – freedom of the city?

  1. Glen K

    If you’d been there on Monday-Wednesday you would have seen a lot of CityCycle use (including me!). That’s because the Asia-Pacific Cycle Congress has just been held there this week and free CityCycle hire was part of the registration. Very handy seeing as my hotel was a good 20 mins walk away from the venue. The helmet problem was solved in that instance by every delegate receiving a new helmet as part of their registration (good timing; my previous one was starting to look a bit dog-eared), but I agree that it’s a tricky issue for the casual CityCycle user (I only saw a few of the CityCycle helmets hanging off bikes and no doubt some people would be a bit funny about wearing a “general use” helmet). The bikes are well equipped including hub gears, comfy seats, lock and dynamo lights, but definitely a bit front-heavy for handling (esp. with a load in your basket). A great addition for the visitor to Brisbane however!

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  2. Chris Glover Kapiti coast NZ

    Bicycle helmet laws have been a disaster for: bike share schemes, tourism, utility cycling, the economy, health, safety, the environment, democracy, freedom and civil liberty.
    Scrap this evil law!

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    1. As I mentioned, it would have been perfectly possible to accommodate the helmet law in Brisbane. I got the feeling that the advertising company contracting to run the scheme did not have an incentive to maximise usage, and thus did not make helmets a priority.

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  3. Chris Glover Kapiti coast NZ

    An article from BICYCLE HELMET RESEARCH FOUNDATION states that attempts to set up bike share schemes in Porirua and Palmerston North NZ in the 1990s floundered due to the helmet law.
    The Auckland bike share scheme failed and closed in 2010.

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