Are cities responsive or experimental? The case of bike share in Singapore
By Julienne Chen, Senior Research Associate, Cities and Innovation
Recent dialogue on cities and urban governance has focused sharply on the word ‘innovation.’ While in this context, ‘innovation’ remains a fuzzy concept, but is often linked with several management and design tools, such as design thinking, data-driven analytics, metrics and performance management, prototyping, community engagement, and pilots and proof of concepts. The pilot is a strategy whereby cities deploy a new policy or program in a small area or with limited roll out, enabling them to test how it works, identify potential improvements and make an informed decision on whether or not it should be implemented at a broader scale. Given the inherent risk in testing out new concepts, a pilot enables a city to make a realistic assessment of how something works and is received in practice; if it is better than what they are replacing; and what the possible unintended consequences are.
One of the most compelling, talked about pilots is the transformation of Times Square in New York City. The closure of one of the busiest intersections in the city to vehicular traffic was a pilot implemented in 2009 under the Bloomberg Administration, a highly controversial project with many concerned about the traffic and economic impact to the surrounding businesses. What once was a smoggy, loud, and accident-prone tug-of-war between cabbies, delivery drivers, tourists and even the occasional true blue New Yorker was temporarily converted into a pedestrian plaza, replete with colourful lawn chairs that popped up on the roadway overnight for people to rest, relax in and enjoy. By making the road closing a pilot, the administration was able to collect data on how it affected traffic flow, safety, local businesses and foot traffic – before deciding to make the changes permanent in 2010 and introducing a massive architectural redesign in 2014.
There are two underlying characteristics of pilots that are interesting to consider. The first is reducing the barriers to, and hence increasing the willingness of a city to experiment with a novel or radical change to their current ways of working. The second is the responsiveness of a city, and how quickly it is able to craft a well-measured, appropriate reaction to new technologies, beliefs and trends that affect its constituents, infrastructure and services.
A current example that has been receiving a great deal of attention in Singapore is the dockless bike share. Dockless bike share is an alternative to hard-wired municipal bike share systems (an innovation in itself) that have been implemented in dozens of cities starting more than a decade ago. The municipal systems are typically a partnership between a city and a bike share vendor, and subsidized by various government and sponsored funding streams. The docking stations are located on public sidewalks or roadways, and offer bicycles that can be rented in small time increments and returned to any docking station around the city. Such systems have in the past been part of a deliberate transportation and economic development strategy by cities desiring to become more “walkable and bikeable,” and are often accompanied by bike lanes and other supportive infrastructure along key transportation corridors. In their own right, they are a useful example of a city experimenting with new modes of transport, city planning and city making.
By testing, marketing and gauging the public receptiveness to these new transportation alternatives, these government investments have interestingly also paved the way for private players to enter into this sector. Despite charging a fee for the bicycle rentals, municipal bike share systems by and large have not been able to become sustainable financial enterprises, and have struggled with concerns such as on-going maintenance, how to keep up with new 2-wheel innovations such as electric bicycles and e-scooters, how to scale the model to more neighbourhoods, and working with vendors whose own business models are also evolving. The private sector offered a supplementary, and potentially alternative, method of providing this service – the dockless bike share, meaning bicycles that can be unlocked and rented using an app on one’s mobile phone, and hence does not require the larger infrastructure of having docking stations located around the city. In this model, the city is no longer the provider, operator and funder of the shared bikes, but rather a key stakeholder to the company that has now taken over this role.
In exchange, however, cities need to contend with a separate set of issues. How should the city respond to an influx of errantly parked, and sometimes broken, bicycles in roadways, sidewalks and other publicly-owned and maintained spaces? For cities who have already implemented municipal bike share systems, how can they best protect their investment? How does the city protect the safety and data of its constituents, and ensure that the companies are reputable and trustworthy? How does a city provide sufficient infrastructure such as bicycle lanes if they weren’t prepared for the growth in bicycle ridership? What does a city do when they don’t want more bikes, but the bikes come anyway? The different ways that cities have tackled these challenges is a gauge of how responsive it is.
In Singapore, the government was in the process of awarding a tender to a private vendor to pilot (docked) bike share in the Jurong Lake District. During this time, it became evident that there were several private players who were ready to deploy their own dockless bike share systems, without any upfront funding from the government. In response, the transport agency made a decision to cancel their own pilot programme, and instead enable the private players to enter the market, and subsequently develop a series of regulations or requirements for the bike share providers and operators. Through an analysis of the media coverage in the Straits Times, we gain a better sense of the timeline of how responsive the government has been to alternately accommodate and regulate this new urban innovation: