The story was full of excitement about the convenience and how cycling can help people becoming more active and improve air quality by reducing the number of car journeys. But the story also featured challenges: piles of bicycles on pavements and congested cycling lanes in cities not expecting an increase in traffic. Transport authorities seemed to be caught between the desire to seize the opportunities and head off the complaints.
But one thing that was missing from the story was how familiar the challenges are and how cities are already tackling them in other areas. At the Open Data Institute, where I work, we like to talk about design patterns for policies that use data to create impact. Some of the patterns needed to make bike sharing better are already in use elsewhere. Bike sharing companies and cities can learn some lessons from cars, buses and other cycling apps to tackle the challenges a bit faster and grab the opportunities a bit sooner.
What is bike sharing
Mobike is one of a number of firms offering bike sharing services. The service is simple. You download a smartphone app, request a bike, go to the location shown on the app, get the bike, cycle to where you want, leave the bike somewhere convenient and pay your fee.
The bike sharing operator will need to process orders and payments, maintain a fleet of bikes and predict demand so that they can move unused bikes to where they are likely to be needed.
The local transport authority has a different task. They need to maintain transport infrastructure to suit the different modes of transport (walking, cycling, cars, buses) that meet the needs of different groups of users (able-bodied people, people with disabilities, tourists, residents, business travellers) at different times of the day. It’s great that cities are welcoming trials of another option in this already complex system.
Some of bike sharing’s challenges can be helped by better use of data
Some of the challenges posed by bike sharing are already being helped by data. Better use of data can tackle them more easily.
Neither cyclists or bike sharing companies want congested cycling lanes. It will make it hard for people to get where they want and risks increasing accidents. That will reduce the number of people who cycle, and reduce the profits that bike sharing companies might make. Giving transport authorities access to data about where people cycle and where accidents occur will help them meet demand and create safer roads. Giving cyclists data about congested cycling routes will help them make better decisions about where to cycle and when.
The bike sharing companies don’t want piles of unused bikes on pavements. They make money when the bikes are used. Bike sharing companies won’t have data on how congested a pavement is because of other traffic: for example bicycles belonging to a competing bike sharing company or because of pedestrians trying to get to lunch. But that congestion can damage their reputation. Giving bike sharing companies access to this data will help them make better decisions about when to move bikes. Giving transport authorities access to this data will help them understand the impact of bike sharing on other types of transport.
Data isn’t a magic bullet. You can give better information to cyclists, bike sharing companies and transport authorities but there is no guarantee that they will use it or that they can even use it quickly. But it can help. We’ve seen it already. The transport sector still has lots to do to improve data but it is a sector which is ahead of most.
Learning the lessons
Many transport authorities already publish open data about congestion, accidents and road closures. Google, Uber and Strava are starting to publish aggregated open data about usage of their platforms for car and bicycle transport through the Mobility, Movement and Metro programmes. By making this data openly available then everyone can improve the service that is provided to car drivers, taxi passengers and cyclists. Openness is essential. It means that cyclists and taxi drivers can use a whole range of services to decide on a route while transport authorities can easily combine the data to give advice or decide where to build new capacity.
Pedestrians can report congested pavements using services like MySociety’s FixMyStreet. The reports are published openly so could be used by the bike sharing companies and transport authorities. If the bike sharing companies all publish aggregated data about where their bikes are left then the decision making can be further improved.
The challenge of bad data business models
Ah, I hear some readers say, but surely there’s a problem? If the bike sharing companies openly publish data about where their cycles are and the routes that people take then won’t that mean that other companies will use that data to compete with them?
Well yes, obviously. But good competitors will know already. It is fairly cheap to get a few people, or a camera or another form of sensor, hanging around major destinations to take pictures of bicycles that can be counted by machines.
Ah, I hear other readers say, but surely the bike sharing companies will be planning to sell the data as part of the data monetisation strategy that everyone is recommending nowadays?
Well yes, they may think they can sell it. But data monetisation is not a very clever strategy for these companies. That isn’t only because their users might prefer the data to be used to benefit their community but also because their users are carrying the smartphones that they used to get the bike. Google, Apple, and the telecoms operators have similar same trip data. It has negligible value.
In a world where data is abundant then data monetisation will work when you can add value to data. For example, it will work for data aggregators, like TransportAPI and ITOWorld, but only occasionally for data publishers. Instead bike sharing companies should open up the data to improve the service.
Data is not oil but it is infrastructure
In the 21st century when it is so cheap to get and use data, business models based on the scarcity of data are generally going to fail. That is one of the many reasons why “data is oil” is an utterly utterly terrible analogy. The smart bike sharing companies will open up aggregate data about usage and the locations of bicycles. They will compete on the quality of services. That competition and focus on services can benefit their users and the wider transport network.
But what happens if bike sharing companies aren’t smart? If they choose to impair the service they give to their users because of a lack of understanding of data and bad business models?
Well, that’s the final data lesson for this post. Data is a new form of infrastructure. Governments are realising that this infrastructure needs to be as open as possible, while respecting privacy, so that businesses can be built and services improved.
The UK government and local authorities tried, and failed, to persuade bus companies to open up data so are now legislating to force it to happen. That legislation will improve services for bus passengers by making it easier for services like Google Maps, Apple Maps and CityMapper to help people decide on their journey.
If the bike sharing companies don’t decide to be smart then I suspect the genuinely “smart cities” will make the decision for them. Bike sharing companies will be welcomed, but only the companies that decide to provide better services by opening up their data. Smart companies will learn the lessons and get ahead of that particular game.