West Midlands Bikeshare Collapses

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.

Lime Bikes Now in Google Maps

The Google Maps Android app now shows the locations of available Lime bikes, which, in the UK, operate in much of London, Milton Keynes and Oxford. It is, for now, quite well hidden.

The app shows the bikes as a potential option when planning a journey, although not as a dedicated entry in the mode choice “band”. Instead, they currently appears as:

1. A sub-option when you choose cycling (which you would probably only do if you had your own bike). “Your bike” is the default, but Lime appears as a toggle at the bottom of the app.:

On selecting it, it will show the route to the nearest bike, and also other nearby Lime bikes:

2. An “also consider” option when looking a public transport options – interestingly this one picks a slightly further away Lime bike, but one which results in a much shorter overall journey (7 minutes here) than the “dedicated cyclist” option above:

3. A suggested alternative “route” when looking at the walking route map, which also picks the shortest walk/cycle combination route:

The data displayed includes the number of bikes “nearby”, the walking time to the nearest one, a confirmation that it is an “electric bike” (i.e. pedelec), its battery range, a guideline journey length and time, and an estimated cost.

Google does know Lime’s operating area – if you choose a origin or destination that is outside of it, then the option doesn’t appear. However, it doesn’t show this boundary in the app itself. Lime’s boundary is fairly nebulous – it has two official operating areas in north and south London but in practice currently allows journeys to start/end in the central area between the official areas, without penalties being applied.

One thing to note is, the bikes don’t appear in the app if you are not planning a journey. So it is, for now, rather hidden away. However, the general public will probably not think of using a single-mode app for their journey planning, no matter how each of the operators would love them to. So, having this information on Google Maps is a really big deal for the 99% of people who would see bikeshare as an alternative rather than the first choice mode in their mind. Especially as the other 5 systems currently operating in central London (Santander Cycles, Mobike, Jump, Freebike and Beryl) are not currently offered as an option. Google Maps does show Santander Cycle docking stations (if you zoom right in) with the current number of bikes there, but doesn’t appear to suggest journeys with these.

CityMapper continue to also map Lime bikes, along with Mobike and Santander Cycles – so 3 of the 6 central London systems:

In both Google Maps and CityMapper, the app will switch away to the dedicated Lime app (if you have it installed) when you start a transaction (i.e. hiring the bike).

Lime announced the tie-in on their website. It looks like it is a direct partnership by the two. Lime data is available for some areas in the US (e.g. New York City) via an GBFS-format open data feed, but this does not include London.

TfL’s own journey planner suggests Santander Cycles, but none of the other five, on the journey planner section of its website. Uber’s app is having a go at trying to be a multi-modal planner by including TfL rail/bus options, but of course only its own “Jump” bikes for its bikeshare options. It currently feels like the rail/bus information is only there to highlight how much better/quicker its own options may be.

So, multi-modal journey planning continues to make small improvements, but we are still a long way from any one app showing all the options. Meanwhile, on the City of London/Islington border, six separate systems, all with different operating areas, fees and rules, fight it out, while for large parts of London, only driving, expensive cabs or slow buses remain the only option.