Bike share: Uber for bikes?

Mtshare bike outside WP
Mtshare bike

Bike share is a key way to get more people on bikes. Starting in Lyon, France in 2005, there are now hundreds of schemes around the world. Bikes are left at locations around a city, and users can register to get a code to release a bike and drop it off at another location. In Aotearoa, NextBike has pioneered bike share in Auckland and Christchurch, and NZTA is getting involved.

What about Wellington? With a flat, compact CBD, Wellington seems ideal for bike share, but so far it hasn’t happened. That is until July, when a private startup Mtshare, inspired by bike share schemes in Shanghai, began leaving bikes around the CBD. A smartphone app (for android or iOS) lets you register and get a code for the combination lock on a bike.

Screenshot_20170921-102310
Mtshare app, showing available bikes

Mtshare is a “dockless” bike share scheme – bikes can be left anywhere, not just at a purpose built docking station. This has the advantage that you don’t need to find a free space on a docking station to return a bike, but the disadvantage that bikes can end up in non public places, or in some cases create obstructive heaps of bikes at popular destinations.

How does it work in practice? I fired up the app outside the central library. The map showed the locations of available bikes – none at the central library, but three close by in Cuba St. However two of these were not on the street. A closer look at the map showed that the bikes appeared to be located in apartment buildings – Mtshare say they’re working with customers to persuade them not to appropriate bikes for personal use. The third bike was conveniently parked on a bike rack, but unfortunately the app gave me the wrong code to unlock the bike.

The app showed more bikes down at the railway station – a convenient location, so I headed there and this time the bikes were accessible, and I was able to get the correct code for a lock. The bikes have a small frame and 507mm (24″) wheels, and the seat height is fixed. Most adults would find them uncomfortable to ride for any distance, but at 1.7m I found it OK for a ride along the waterfront, and indeed it felt a bit like rediscovering BMX as a kid. Mtshare has plans for larger bikes, with adjustable seats.

The helmet attached to the bike was a bit small for me. Some people don’t like the idea of using a helmet that other people have used, but to me it seems no different from using the headrests of airplane seats.

The bikes have stands, which means that they can be left anywhere, even if there isn’t a fixed bike stand. There is a bell but no lights. The next batch of bikes will have baskets.

At the moment, there is no charge for using the bikes, and Mtshare would like to continue this, instead supporting the service through advertising. Similar schemes have also been mined for location data.

With more bikes, and better sizing, Mtshare could be a good way for bike-less people to experience the convenience of biking. And with good management we can hopefully avoid the downsides that have appeared in some other places.


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