The West Midlands Bikeshare is no more, after Transport for West Midlands (TfWM), part of the West Midlands Combined Transport Authority (WMCTA), cancelled its contract with nextbike, the provider and operator, citing persistent breaches of contract – this likely relating to delays to its wider rollout of 3000-5000 bikes and proposed changes to the system such as increasing fees, not covering the full TfWM area, and struggling to find technological solutions to integrate with the region’s “Swift” multi-modal transit card. The bikeshare had been operating on a trial basis, covering just 25 non-electric bikes across 5 docking stations in a small area in central Wolverhampton in the north-west of the proposed operating area, plus a single docking station in Birmingham itself. The system had already been delayed from late last year. It had been announced in a blaze of publicity by West Midlands elected major Andy Street, at the beginning of 2018.
As recently as a week before the collapse, nextbike had announced that it had resolved issues with not finding a major sponsor of the system and a parts shortage, and that the larger rollout was imminent. The docking stations have already had their bikes removed, and the stations themselves, which are placed on the ground, will also be shortly removed. The system had seen around 7 journeys a day during the 6 months of the trial – that’s 7 in total not 7 per bike. One issue was that the docking stations were placed close together, only allowing journeys between points in the compact city centre that could be easily and probably just as quickly walked. Smarter placement, such as by the railway station, tram stops, football stadium, main public parks and suburban community hubs, would have created more journey opportunities.
Bikesharp tried out the trial system in Wolverhampton a couple of times, and was impressed by the quality and condition of the bikes (helped perhaps by their very low usage rate). The system was relatively complicated to use, however, with a cable lock that needed to be stowed and journeys that could not be finished simply by docking the bike. There were also some issues with GPS accuracy – a bike that was incorrectly docked was shown on the app’s map to be on the other side of a main road.
The two parties have both taken to the press to explain their views on the reasons for the collapse. WMCTA is saying it is looking for another provider, but the omens are not good. The West Midlands area, with Birmingham at its heart, is a large, low density urban area, bisected by motorways, with few current cycling journeys and high private car usage, compared with many other cities in the UK. This is despite its relatively flat landscape and a large network of canals, with corresponding towpaths, making for an ideal cycling network. Certainly, a bikeshare system could work in small, targetted parts of the region, if target sites are well chosen.