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:

July 3 (2014): the Land Transit Authority (LTA) begins considering bike share; issues a Request for Information to review cost and feasibility

July 29 (2016): LTA issues a tender for a national (docked) bike share scheme, with 2,330+ bikes to launch in 2017 in select pilot neighbourhoods

December 9: 13 firms submit bids to the LTA tender

January 11 (2017): Singapore’s Active Mobility Bill is passed, allowing the use of bikes and personal mobility devices on sidewalks.

January 21: Singapore firm oBike soft launches its bikes in the north and west of Singapore

February 18: Chinese company ofo enters the Singapore market with upwards of 1,000 bikes

March 21: Chinese company Mobike launches bike share in SIngapore

March 24: the LTA cancels its plans for the national bike share scheme

March 28: the LTA creates seven new bike parking zones (painted yellow boxes) in response to growing concerns about errant bike parking

April 13: oBike officially launches its bike share with ~1,000 bikes after  January soft launch

April 30: 3 major bike share companies sign an MOU with the Jurong-Clementi Town Council. The companies agree to provide data on bike usage and set up a 24-hour maintenance center

May 19: A committee of Town Councils begins to develop regulations for bike share

June 18: 1,400 new bike spaces (34 parking zones) have been created since March

July 12: the LTA issues a tender to create an additional 3,000 bike parking spaces

July 28: the LTA issues a research grant call to research bike share, e.g., how to efficiently redistribute bikes and manage bike parking

August 4: 278 bikes have been impounded by the government. Operators are fined $100 per impound.

October 5: the LTA signs an agreement with bike share firms. Bike share operators are required to employ geo-fencing technology by end of 2017 to regulate bike parking, fund safety campaigns, remove faulty bikes within a day and provide liability insurance for its riders.

October 12: more than 30,000 bike share bikes are believed to have been deployed in Singapore; a new player plans to introduce shared e-bikes and e-scooters by the end of the year.

In short, in the ten months since dockless bikes began to operate in Singapore, the government’s response has included cancelling its own plans for bike share, initiating a research grant program, providing low-maintenance bike parking spaces, and creating a regulatory partnership with the operating companies. While the way dockless bike share operates is still far from perfect, we can see the early indications of how the Singapore government has been alternately experimental and responsive. It serves as an illustration of how the two concepts, while complementary – are not the same. They have been experimental in supporting the dockless bike share to operate in Singapore, observing early on the benefits and challenges, and then responding with a series of regulations and partnerships with the firms.

The risk with not being able to respond quickly can be seen in several Chinese cities – Shanghai and Beijing amongst them – who are now banning and/or trying to catch up with regulations to mitigate the negative externalities of the bike share schemes.

However, Singapore cannot be considered an early adopter of bike share. And, while it may have gained some advantages by waiting until the next generation of technology came out, it may also have lost out by not being able to implement and test out fixed bike share programs, which have its own set of advantages. Other cities with their own fixed systems have a strong sense of ownership, and have been able to control the conversation about bike share, introduce bicycling in strategic, dense locations to build up a culture and critical mass of cyclists, and help ensure that it is a safe and sustainable system over time. In this sense, there is something lost by shifting these responsibilities to the private sector, which has a different set of values and goals.

This also brings up the question of first mover advantages, and if early adopters of bike share were justified in their experimentation. In the case of Washington, DC – one of the first US cities to introduce bike share, circa 2008 – it appears to be so. DC has in the last decade gained a great deal of traction as a bike friendly city, and in fact may soon become the American city with the highest share of bike commuters. Interestingly, Washington DC is now also one of the few US cities that has been the most open about allowing new dockless bike share companies to operate there.

Another example worth mentioning is Seattle, whose Department of Transportation openly embraced the idea of the dockless bike share after their own municipal system went under after 2.5 years. They quickly established a pilot program to issue permits for dockless bike share companies to operate in the city, with the headline banner on the permitting website quoting Thomas Edison: “The most certain way to succeed is to always try just one more time.” The pilot will last for six months (July – December 2017), after which it will be evaluated to see if it should become a permanent feature in the city’s landscape.

The next question of course is: now that cities have the bikes – do they have the infrastructure to support them? Indeed, bike lanes are one of the greatest testing beds for government experimentation in the United States at the moment. There are ample examples of cities experimenting with the removal of a car lane for a bike lane, or testing out different materials and treatments for bike lanes – in some instances, these are tactical, short-term interventions, in some cases the experiment doesn’t work and the bike lanes are removed, and in other cases the bike lanes are a success and are replicated in multiple locations. In our new, rapidly changing societies – perhaps the way forward is not to try to tightly control new innovations, but to have the right government structure to safely try new things, respond quickly, evaluate, adjust and adapt.