Time to Pedal

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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Public bicycle sharing has often failed in India but two big launches suggest it might finally be here to stay

NOT ONLY WAS V Ramesh early for the time, he had been warned by well-wishers that he was early for the time. In the beginning of 2008, the then CEO of the financial services company Prabhudas Lilladher went to Barcelona and saw the use of public bikes in large numbers for commuting. He saw an opportunity to start such a system in India. There was a large commuter population that could be serviced and it was good for the environment, a factor that could interest the Government and corporates to sign up as partners. By the end of the year, he had quit his job and registered his company, and the following January, got Fremo, as he had named the venture, rolling in Thane, a northeast suburb of Mumbai.

In public bike sharing (PBS), docking points across a town or city have cycles stationed which can be picked up and then dropped at any other station. The municipality refused to give him space for docking stations, so Ramesh hired six shops in Thane and kept 100 cycles there with employees manning them. People could register for a fee, get swipe cards, go to any shop and present the card to take a cycle and drop it at any other shop. His calculation was that there were lakhs of people travelling to Thane’s railway station daily to catch local trains; even if he could get 5,000 registrations, he could break even. Cycling was cheap; for the commuter it worked out to one-sixth of what he would pay by bus and one-twentieth by rickshaw. And once the cycling culture got rolling, the municipality could be convinced to create cycling lanes. As it turned out, he got about 250 registrations, 5 per cent of his target to stay afloat.

In a year, Ramesh had spent Rs 50 lakh of his own money on the venture, since he couldn’t interest anyone in funding it, but what made him give up was a scheme he announced whereby people could take the bicycles free one day a week. Still, no one was interested. “I got about five or six calls, that is all. If people didn’t want to try something even if free, then I thought there was no point in running it alone and spending all my money,” he says. He returned to the financial services industry.

Why does he think the idea failed? For a couple of reasons that had no merit. One, the notion that cycling is not safe. Two, the fear of sweating. “Accidents don’t happen to cyclists because they know they are vulnerable and so are careful while riding, keeping themselves to the left,” he says. “What we keep hearing about perspiration is also not true; you will perspire too much only if you ride with a lot of stress and speed. These were, however, mind blocks for people. They also think cycling to be a low-class activity.”

Ramesh is not the only one who tried and failed at instituting a PBS system in India. Fledgling ventures in different cities have had the same experience. Last month, however, saw Mysuru and Bhopal starting a PBS system, and this time, some of the lessons of the past have been taken in.

Mysuru launched first and Bhopal followed three weeks later. The difference between now and what transpired in the past is scale—because that is the only way a public bike sharing system can succeed. As Chandramauli Shukla, CEO of Bhopal Smart City Development Corporation, says, “It has to start from everywhere and end at everywhere.”

Shukla helms the project to turn Bhopal into a cycling hub and is himself a cyclist of some standing. He is a Super Randonneur, someone who has completed 200, 300, 400 and 600 km rides within the space of about four or five months. But the culture that he is keen to institute in Bhopal is the use of short cycle rides as an alternative to motorised commute. The initial signs are encouraging. PBS hit Bhopal roads on June 25th. Within a week, it had 5,000 registrations. “We did not think it would happen in such a short span of time,” he says.

There are 500 bicycles and 50 docking stations there. The system is cashless, requiring just a mobile or a smart card to use once someone has registered. It is similar to systems in Europe, where the first 30 minutes of usage is typically free. A lesson that Bhopal learnt from the past PBS experience in India is that a sustained focus must be kept on operations and so the city incentivised the private operator. “We said that ‘If usage [of all cycles] is more than 90 per cent, then we will pay you 15 per cent of the operation costs. If your efficiency is more than 95 per cent, we will pay you nearly 30 per cent,’” he says.

Public bike sharing launched first in Mysuru and Bhopal followed three weeks later. The difference between now and programmes of the past is scale, because that is the only way that such a service can succeed

Shukla and his team also realised that dedicated infrastructure is required and created 12 km of bicycle lanes. “We knew we were in the process of implementing PBS and fortunately one of the roads was being widened and we took five metres out of that on either side. They are red in colour to mark them out and bollards have been put in so that even motorcycles cannot enter. Secondly teams of the municipal corporation have been formed to look after the tracks to ensure no vending and encroachments,” he says. Unexpectedly, more women than men have registered. Students are also using the cycles in large numbers. Resident associations are being encouraged to demand the setting up of docking stations in their localities. Shukla is waiting for the system to stabilise before expanding it. “By the end of July, we are targeting at least 10,000 members registered. Then all 500 bicycles will be used two or three or four times every day on average. If that sustains for a month or two, then we start looking to expand or double the entire system. Fifty stations might go to 100, bicycles might go from 500 to 1,000. Already there are demands coming to have them in different places. That is a good sign,” he says.

When it was launched on June 4th, Mysuru had little precedent to follow in India. The Karnataka government’s Directorate of Urban land Transport (DULT) had thought of introducing such a system in one of the state’s cities some years back and Mysuru seemed a natural choice because it already had a cycling culture. The project, called Trin Trin and sized at Rs 20 crore, took one-and-a-half years. There are 450 cycles in 49 docking stations at present. The response here too has been better than expected. N Murali Krishna, special officer, DULT, says, “We had targeted 5,000 registrations. We have already got 3,000. Looking at the response we need to quickly think of how to develop the system.”

DULT is now planning a PBS system in Bengaluru which will be at an entirely different scale. The plan is to deploy 5,000 cycles at 300-plus stations there, integrating it with the Metro, malls, parks and lakes. The state cabinet is expected to clear the proposal, after which it is estimated to take a year for PBS to start in Bengaluru. In Madhya Pradesh, Bhopal’s launch has led to Jabalpur, Indore, Ujjain and Gwalior deciding to have PBS systems. In other states, Visakhapatnam, Bhubaneswar, Pune, Chennai and Jaipur are hopping on to the idea.

WHY HAS PUBLIC bike sharing suddenly got traction? The non-governmental research organisation World Resources Institute, which has been working in this space, was associated with the Bhopal PBS system. Amit Bhatt, director of Transport at WRI India, says, “Bhopal happened because PBS was a part of the Smart City proposal. Mysuru because they got funding from the World Bank. These are two main catalysts. But because this has happened, many other cities are also looking at bike sharing.”

Bike sharing cannot succeed without government support because the revenue generation model is weak at present. “Both Bhopal and Mysuru are government ventures. If the intention of bike sharing is to feed mass transit, if the first 30 minutes is free, then someone will have to pay for that cost. A lot of Chinese fourth-generation bike sharing systems are using personal data for revenue generation. That is a model still to come to India, but someone has to take care of cost, and that is where the government comes in,” he says.

According to Bhatt, bike sharing’s success hinges on a few factors. One is good planning. You need a critical mass for it to make an impact. “For example, what happened in Delhi Metro [which has a fledgling PBS system not used very much] was that it was in just a few stations. Ten, 20 bikes will not make any impact. Ideally, a thousand bicycles, a bare minimum of 500 for a small to medium town, are required to make a significant impact. Second, what is the purpose of the system—mass transit, recreational, et cetera. Third is how safe the system is. A lot of people are apprehensive of accidents. Bhopal has created dedicated cycling tracks,” he says.

Before Bhopal and Mysuru, a year back, there was a successful bike sharing venture in the town of Karnal. Bhatt’s colleague, Sarika Panda, manager, Cities and Transport, WRI India, was part of it. The NGO had started an initiative called Raahgiri in which roads would be closed to motor transport for a day and the Superintendent of Police had requested Panda to do it in that town. She then got involved in other projects and became a frequent visitor there. The SP himself was a cyclist and when he heard about WRI’s work in Bhopal, he said he was interested in a bike sharing system for the policemen under him. When the municipal corporation came to know, it suggested that the project be done at a bigger scale for the public at large. For Rs 250, a user could get registered. There was a monthly charge of Rs 100. The first 30 minutes, as usual, was free. This project started with 280 cycles.

The theft of cycles in PBS systems is not unusual, even in Europe. But in Karnal, only once has someone not returned a cycle the same day and he did so on the morrow on getting a call enquiring about the delay. “There were no thefts because of the ownership the town had taken of the whole system,” Panda says.

IN 2009, RAJ Janagam, a social entrepreneur, got into the cycle- sharing business connecting colleges in Mumbai’s eastern suburb of Mulund. With 60 cycles, the venture aimed at 700 to 1,000 users and did get them over a year. But to keep going, scale was needed, and for that, capital was required. Janagam approached civic bodies. The Mumbai municipality didn’t reply but Pune’s came back with a positive response. The plan was to have 500 cycles in the first phase connecting a network of 100 locations in the city. The venture was promised Rs 3.5 crore in capital expenditure by the corporation. Janagam shifted base to Pune but the money never came and he was forced to quit.

“Putting bicycles on the road is easy, ensuring that the system is running and has the ability to be used by the intended people is difficult. Internationally, each bike is used two to three times a day. That is what we have to aim for to decongest the cities, which is the primary purpose of bike sharing. If that is not happening, then bicycle sharing becomes like another beautification project,” Janagam says.

He gives the example of something that Hyderabad had started some years earlier. The city had cycling tracks in the middle of a big highway. “That highway is part of the journey, not the destination. No one in their right mind would get off that highway, take a cycle and then get off again on the highway. This has been a big issue in terms of planning. The bicycle tracks and systems are not put in the middle of the congestion. They are put where space is available.”

Janagam is now a consultant to corporates and cycle-sharing companies from abroad that are looking at India. He says when he started, there was no government support at all, but that has changed now. As to whether bicycle sharing will succeed because of it, he says, “I don’t know if it could, but I am 100 per cent sure it should. That is the only future.”