Bike-sharing: Is Singapore riding the wrong way?

Experts weigh in on which model suits the Republic's needs best

The exit of three bicycle-rental operators - oBike, GBikes and ShareBikeSG - within a month has raised doubts on the sustainability and suitability of the dockless bike-share model for Singapore.

While four players - ofo, Mobike, Anywheel and SG Bike - remain, experts ask if Singapore would have been better off with a planned government-backed bike-sharing scheme that was later scrapped.

In 2016, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) called a tender for a national bicycle-sharing scheme. Under this, users would have to pick up and return bicycles from fixed docking stations. This contrasts with the dockless system - in which Global Positioning System-enabled bicycles can be locked and unlocked anywhere the user desires, via a mobile phone app. But this has led to rampant indiscriminate parking.

With the entry of dockless bike-share operators - a model from China - since early last year, the LTA shelved its plans.

The Sunday Times gets experts to consider which different bike-share models may suit Singapore.

GOVT-BACKED DOCKED SYSTEM

Observers say the current dockless bike-share industry - in which companies flood the market with two-wheelers and charge below-cost rates - is unsustainable.

 
 
 

The Chinese-founded oBike, for one, chalked up a loss of $4.25 million and now owes users a combined US$4.6 million (S$6.2 million) in deposits.

National University of Singapore transport researcher Lee Der-Horng believes that if more firms exit the market, it may be back to the drawing board for a government-led bike-sharing system.

"In any global metropolitan city (with a dockless bike-share system), we have been witnessing uncontrollable and unmanageable user behaviour," he said, adding that a docked system is better.

But in cities where docked bike-share exists - such as in Taipei, London and Hangzhou - there is some form of public-private partnership and financial support from the government. This would apply to Singapore too, say experts.

Mr Michael van Eggermond, a senior researcher at Future Cities Laboratory, said: "To deploy a docked bike-sharing system all over Singapore - in the city area and housing estates - would be very costly for an operator, due to the costs to provide docking stations and subsequent re-positioning of bicycles."

He said a docked system can reduce illegal parking, but is costly.

The Washington Post reported in 2015 that under Washington, DC's Capital Bikeshare, a single customised bicycle cost US$1,209, while a 15-bike docking station cost more than US$38,660. In contrast, one Mobike costs about 2,000 yuan (S$409) to manufacture.

DOCKLESS SYSTEM - PRIVATE OR PUBLIC?

With the low bike utilisation levels, experts reckon that bike-share operators are not making money now. A study here last year of 10,000 bicycles over a week showed each was used on average to make between 0.62 and 1.64 trips a day - far fewer than the five trips a day experts say are needed to make it profitable.

oBike said the compliance costs and hefty fines for illegal parking under the LTA's upcoming licensing regime add further pressure.

For failing to comply with LTA's industry standards on managing illegal parking, operators can be fined up to $100,000 for each instance of non-compliance.

Mr Lai Meng, who was involved in a now-defunct bicycle-sharing scheme in Bukit Batok in 2003, said for bike-share systems to be attractive, rental rates must be kept low.

Mr Lai, president of the Car-Sharing Association of Singapore, said: "The operators have to find a broader revenue stream to make it viable. It can't just be usage fee, but they may need sponsorship or advertisements on the bikes."

GOVT REGULATION THE KEY?

In March, the LTA announced a licensing regime for bike-share operators to control fleet sizes and tackle indiscriminate parking. The LTA and public agencies plan to add 50,000 bike parking spaces by 2020 to the current 174,000. Users must scan a QR code placed at the "yellow boxes" to end their rides.

Mr Francis Chu, who ran bike-sharing scheme Isuda here in 2012, said a government-backed bike-sharing system is unnecessary.

Some cities in China have made some headway in controlling indiscriminate parking, and regulations here are likely to do the same, said Mr Chu, co-founder of cycling enthusiast group LoveCyclingSG.

Dr Lee said it remains to be seen how strictly parking in yellow boxes will be enforced. For example, if the box is full, will users still be allowed to dump the bike on top of other ones, he asked.

Mr van Eggermond said that in a dockless system, bicycle parking lots need to be visible, well positioned, and placed at regular intervals. "In deciding where to position these lots, the authorities need to be responsive to user demand, and this can come through research, surveys, and observing travel patterns from bike operators," he added.

• Additional reporting by Zhaki Abdullah