Would bike-sharing work in London? The city is looking into it

The city of London is looking to create a business case that will determine whether a bike-share program makes sense for the Forest City.

Smartphone technology means new bike-sharing systems can be cheaper to operate

Jay Stanford, the city of London's director of environment, fleet and solid waste, says new smartphone technologies have brought drastic changes to bike sharing in recent years. (Andrew Lupton)

London may be late to the game of creating its own bike-sharing system, but at least one staffer thinks that could be a good thing. 

"We're finding out some fascinating developments that are occurring in the bike-share marketplace," said Jay Stanford, the city's manager of environment, fleet and solid waste. "We're hoping that London will be able to capture all of that in our business case."

A total of 18 Canadian cities now operate some kind of bike-sharing system, where users can rent from a pool of communal bikes to take short trips. After the customer parks the bike, it can be rented right away by another user. The underlying idea is that the pool of bikes form part of a city's transportation system. 

The move to get bike-sharing rolling in London picked up momentum with the completion of the city's cycling plan in 2016. 

Toronto started its system in 2011 and while it's wildly popular, the system has had its share of growing pains. In 2014, the city had to step in and take over after the private company running the system fell behind on startup loan payments to the city.

The city's parking authority now operates Bike Share Toronto. Most of the costs are covered by the system's 90,000 users but it continues to rely on some government funding to keep running. Still, Toronto has worked out many of the kinks and last year expanded the system to have 3,750 bikes and a network of 360 docking stations across the city.

Most bike share systems use some kind of docking stations, a series of racks throughout the downtown where users can rent and return bikes, and process their payments. 

But now thanks to advances in smartphone and GPS technology, many systems have moved away from docks. Instead, customers can use their phone to find the bike and pay for it. When they're done, users can leave and lock bikes in designated areas known as "havens." An on-board GPS tracker shows other users where the bikes are, so the next customer can quickly locate a bike and unlock it using a code sent to their phone. 

This way the operator saves money on stations, and the user is less restricted about where they can ride.

"You can free flow a little more and move around the system," said Stanford. "So the sophistication is paying off for some cities that are doing pilot projects, they're finding the costs are lowering substantially."

Toronto's bike sharing program had a corporate sponsor in TD bank, but they ended their sponsorship in 2016. (Bike Share Toronto)

Stanford said the first step for London is for city staff to come up with an air-tight business model, one that clearly lays out all the costs.

"We don't want to have any expectations that a system like this pays for itself … unless it does," he said. "Our commitment to council is that we'll be very clear about any systems that require an ongoing subsidy."

Daniel Hall of the cycling advocacy group Cycle Link London says a bike sharing program would be a welcome addition.

"Anything that encourages more people to ride, we see that as a good thing," said Hall. "You don't need to worry about theft or storage or maintenance, those things really increase the amount of people who might chose to ride."

Another upside? A fleet of web-connected, GPS-enabled bikes making thousands of trips across the city can quickly create a rich set of data, which the city can use to tweak the system.

"If we're seeing bikes turn up in Byron, that may lead us to create a station there," said Stanford. 

Stanford said for now all options are on the table, but it's likely London would take a long look at using a third-party operator instead of training city staff to run the system. Another option to ease the potential budget impact is to have a corporate sponsor sign on. Advertising on the bikes themselves presents another potential revenue stream. 

U.S. app-based bike sharing service Limebike is eyeing an expansion into Canada. (Submitted by Lime)

The city has set up a website to gather public input and staff intend to have a business model in front of council for consideration by June. 

"My hope is that we'll have a system up and running in London within a year or two," said Stanford.

Anyone who wants to provide their input can share it in this section of the city's website.

About the Author

Andrew Lupton is a B.C.-born journalist, father of two and a north London resident with a passion for politics, photography and baseball.


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