Delving into stationless bike sharing in Dublin

Why have stationless bike sharing schemes been slow to catch on in Dublin?

The bike rental industry has become  a booming and competitive market, leading to new innovative schemes being brought to our cities. The concept of stationless bike sharing is quite different to the Dublin Bike station-based scheme. Dublin Bikes requires you to return your rental bike to a designated station in the city centre. This can be inconvenient if there is no station nearby or if the station you wish to leave your rental bike in is already full. Stationless bike sharing, on the other hand, allows cyclists to park and collect a shared bike anywhere within the designated “sharing zone”. The process of renting a shared bike is quite simple. Worldwide, bike sharing companies work on a similar model. The cyclist downloads the company’s app, can view nearby bikes on an interactive map and then unlock them via Bluetooth by scanning a QR code or entering the bike’s serial number. 

Stationless bike sharing only launched first in Dublin in the summer of 2018, quite behind many European cities. One of the reasons for this was DCC’s delay in granting operator licences and passing the relevant bylaws. Consequently, having already waited 12 months to obtain a licence, Bleeperbike launched in Dublin without the Council’s permission in Summer 2018. Commenting on this to Trinity news, DCC stated that it “removed the unlicensed Bleeperbikes from the streets and then introduced bylaws to regulate on-street stationless bike hire schemes”. 

…the system in Berlin has been criticised for having an over abundance of bikes, leading to streets being littered with illegally parked bikes. Striking a balance appears to be a challenge for this new form of technology.”

Stationless bike sharing has yet to fully take off in Dublin. This could in part be due to Dublin only having one operator. Bleeperbike currently owns around 450 bikes in the city. Compare this to Berlin, approximately seven times the size of Dublin in terms of area, it has approximately 16,000 bikes offered by four different operators. To have a level of bike density on par with Berlin, Dublin would require some 2,200 bikes. However, the system in Berlin has been criticised for having an oversupply, with streets littered with illegally parked bikes. Striking a balance appears to be a challenge for this sector.

Making stationless bike sharing a reality has been difficult in Dublin. Originally, it was not intended that Bleeperbike would be Dublin’s only operator. Urbo was expected to launch simultaneously with Bleeperbike. Urbo had previously operated in the parts of the UK, including Ipswich and Suffolk. However, the company has since suspended operations and removed their app from Google Play and the Apple App Store. According to the BBC, Ipswich Borough Council and Suffolk County Council had “not heard” from Urbo “for months” in September 2018. Despite this, in October 2018 DCC stated that they would “offer a further extension of time” within which Urbo could launch in Dublin if necessary. 

Now, 13 months later, DCC has accepted that Urbo will not launch in Dublin and said, when asked for comment by Trinity News, that it “held another competition for an Operator’s Licence and identified a preferred applicant, Moby. It is expected that Moby will launch their service in the next couple of months”. Similar to Bleeperbike, Moby is a Dublin-based start up. The slow progression of the granting of such licences, and the lack of a definite date for Moby’s launch, would appear to indicate that bike sharing schemes are not a priority for DCC. 

“Trinity campus is part of Bleeperbike’s rental zone, meaning bikes may be rented and deposited on campus. Despite this, few students appear to be aware of the company.”

Trinity campus is part of Bleeperbike’s rental zone, meaning bikes may be rented and deposited on campus. Despite this, few students appear to be aware of the company’s existence. In June 2019, DCC, Trinity and Bleeperbike released the findings of a joint research project on bike sharing in Dublin. They found that “7.5% of the 6,000 weekly trips made via Bleeperbike could have happened by car or taxi, which saves an estimated five tonnes of carbon per year”. This is undoubtedly a positive step in the reduction of carbon emissions in Dublin. 

Currently, Bleeperbike offers journeys of up to 60 minutes for 80c and also have the option of buying an annual membership, which allows for four journeys of up to 60 minutes per day, for €70. This is certainly more expensive than Dublin Bike’s annual membership of €25 which includes unlimited free journeys under 30 minutes, with a charge of 50c for journeys that last between 30 minutes and one hour. However, stationless bike sharing offers greater flexibility and operates on a for-profit basis, unlike Dublin Bikes. It remains to be seen whether having a second stationless bike sharing company enter the market will have an impact on subscription and rental prices through increased competition.

Perhaps surprisingly, with a growing market for bike sharing, Bleeperbike recently refused a licence offer from Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council (DLRCC). The company had been operating a pilot scheme in the region since October 2017, but declined to pursue future business there. This highlights the dangers of having a for-profit company managing transportation infrastructure. In the event of the project not meeting the business’s ongoing needs, it may simply withdraw its services with minimal notice and leave users inconvenienced. Commenting on this to Trinity News, DLRCC said “it is intended to hold a further competition in early 2020 where operators will be invited to apply for a licence.”

Cities have varying approaches to the regulation of stationless bike sharing services. For example, in Berlin, cyclists can leave their bikes in pretty much any location they see fit. However, in Dublin, cyclists are instructed to park shared bike legally at an official bicycle rack and attach the bike using an in-built cable system. A spokesperson for Dublin City Council (DCC) stated that “having researched other schemes worldwide, the Council felt that the only way to prevent the widespread dumping of bikes in unsuitable locations would be to introduce this [parking regulation]”. Despite this, the Council said that it introduced an additional 4,000 bicycle parking spaces between 2018 and 2019. 

“7.5% of the 6,000 weekly trips made via Bleeperbike could have happened by car or taxi, which saves an estimated five tonnes of carbon per year.”

Stationless “e-scooter” rental works in a similar manner to stationless bike sharing in many European cities. No company has been able to launch an e-scooter rental scheme in Dublin, however, due to prohibitive licensing laws. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as e-scooters sharing schemes have been heavily criticised for the negative environmental impact of their recharging process. This generally involves collecting the scooters by van or lorry at night, bringing them to a charging point and redistributing them across the city in the early hours of the morning. In contrast, bike sharing schemes are virtually carbon neutral and offer a healthy and cheap alternative to taking public transport, taxis, or driving. 

Despite global increased use of bike sharing, Dublin’s experience with such schemes has been shrouded in uncertainty, from Bleeperbike launching without a licence to Urbo’s disappearance. However, DCC says that “the next generation of stationless bikes will be e-bikes (pedelecs) and this offering is expected to lead to a further uptake in the use of stationless bikes”. Given that low-end e-bikes start at €575 and high-end e-bikes can cost up to €2,700, e-bike share schemes ought to make this technology available to more people. Hopefully they can thereby reduce transport emissions in Dublin by making longer journeys more feasible by bicycle. However, the launch of such schemes ought not to detract attention from Dublin’s significant public transport infrastructure failings and continued overreliance on cars.  

Bleeperbike did not respond to a request for comment to this article.

Comhall Fanning

Comhall Fanning is a Deputy Features Editor for Trinity News, and a Senior Sophister German and Sociology student.