The rise of rental bikes in Berlin: Five ways to ensure residents benefit

In the heart of Berlin, there’s a new generation of rental bicycles. These are five major steps the city can take to ensure that bike rental companies are contributing to Berlin’s sustainability and safety goals.

Photo by Jennifer warburg

A guest post for Omnified by Jennifer Warburg

Jennifer Warburg is an urbanist and policy expert, with seven years experience advising California cities on transportation and sustainability. She describes how the private bike rental boom has manifested in Berlin and recommends how policymakers can harness it to serve the city’s cycling goals.

In the heart of Berlin, there’s a new generation of rental bicycles.

Inside the Ringbahn, it’s unusual to go more than a few paces without seeing the distinctive orange, green, yellow or silver bikes. Mobike, ofo, Lime, Lidl-branded, Byke, Donkey Republic and Deezer nextbikes are scattered along sidewalks and clustered at entrances to parks, transit stations, and major sites. New brands (and colors!) seem to appear all the time.

GPS-enabled and self-locking, the bikes don’t need to be docked at a station or even locked to a rack. They can be parked almost anywhere. Locating the bike, unlocking it, and paying for its use can all be done with an app.

In the last year, the number of station-less “shared bikes” on Berlin streets has exploded. From December 2017 to this April, Handelsblatt Global recorded a 75 percent increase – a rise from 10,200 to 18,000 in a five-month period. There could be 30,000 by the end of 2018, just taking into account the projected growth of two providers – Mobike and Ofo.

Upping the choice of rental bikes available in Berlin could make it possible for more trips to be made by bike and amplify the myriad benefits associated with being a bike-friendly city, including improved mobility, reduced traffic and air pollution, and more pleasant and safe streets. Benefits increase when the local government plays an active role – integrating cycling with other transit offerings and building the infrastructure necessary for efficient and safe biking.

What is needed to make dockless bike shares succeed?

The first generation of urban bike share often involved government stewardship, and characteristic slowness and technological clunkiness — a limited number of approved stations, glitchy check-out terminals, and heavy bikes.

This new wave is being driven by private companies in a heated global competition to grow fast and dominate markets in key cities. What the private companies offer is new tech, low fees, and a huge number of bikes available seemingly everywhere that make it easier for many more trips to be made on two wheels.

Many in the Berlin Senate have said they’re committed to transforming cycling in Berlin. The private bike rental boom could serve this goal, but it requires the city to play an active role.

There are five major steps the city can take to use the rise of bike sharing to harness resources for planned bicycle infrastructure and to ensure that bike rental companies are contributing to Berlin’s sustainability and safety goals.

1) Deliver on cycling infrastructure commitments

For mobility and street safety advocates, the issue is not the number or type of bikes on the streets of Berlin but rather, the failure of infrastructure to keep up with the growth in cycling. Jan Michael Ihl of the bicycle advocacy group, Netzwerk Fahrradfreundliches Neukölln, said Berlin cycling numbers began growing rapidly several years ago – and that infrastructure has lagged behind.

Ihl participated in the 2015 Volksentscheid Fahrrad referendum campaign for additional bicycling infrastructure, asking the city to add at least 350 kilometers of safe biking paths on main roads in Berlin, plus new bike-timed signals, safe crossings and dedicated space for bike parking.

Actual on-the-ground improvements, however, have been slow in coming. Infrastructure takes time to build, but political holdups are also to blame. The Local reported in December that the city had yet to hire half of the 24 engineering positions created to design and build out a cycling network plan.

The single most important thing for the Senate to do is speed up its delivery of new and improved cycling infrastructure. That means finalizing the Mobility Act, building out the bike paths and parking already scoped out, and hiring the city staff to plan and build more.

2) Create a permit system

Fares for low-income riders, funding for public infrastructure, commitment to maintaining bikes and keeping the numbers manageable – all these are requirements the Berlin Senate could levy on private bike rental services.

But for the time being: “There is no permit process for dockless bikes and no cap imposed on the number of bikes that can be put out on the streets,” wrote Winden, Deputy Spokeswoman for the Senate Department for the Environment, Traffic and Climate Protection, in a June 4 email.

The Berlin Senate currently works from the framework of a comprehensive strategy for mobility, which makes limited mention of bike-sharing. It says, essentially, as the Senate Press Speaker Dorothee Winden put it: “Dockless bikes are regulated by the market.”

The lack of a permit system in Berlin for private bike operators is a missed opportunity – and a liability. The Berlin Senate Department for the Environment, Traffic and Climate Protection has distributed official guidelines for the Districts (Bezirke) and providers of dockless bikes, but the regulation so far has been close to none. The guidelines recommend there not be more than four bikes in one place, but they do not regulate the overall number in the city or have information on their movements. Bikes are not allowed to block sidewalks or U-bahn entrances or be parked in parks – and broken bikes must be repaired or removed by their providers within 24 hours, but there is no agency designated to monitor and enforce these rules.

The city should create a central permit application system created for dockless bike rental companies seeking to operate in Berlin and require companies to adhere to rules for safe operation and to cooperate with city goals for equitable access, environmental standards, and personal data protection.

The current Senate guidelines could serve as a basis for these rules, but they should be made into requirements with the force of law. San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Authority program provides a good precedent. Its permit application includes requirements that operators maintain bikes in safe condition, keep public thoroughfares clear, offer reduced fares for low-income users, share their ridership data with the city, and pay a fee to support public infrastructure.

3) Charge private companies fees to operate. Fund a public cycling infrastructure endowment

Berlin should implement a system of per-bike permit fees on private operators, so that a portion of the profits made renting bikes on Berlin streets might be directed towards the maintenance and improvement of the city’s bicycling network. This is similar to the arrangements most cities share with taxis, which pay road user fees.

The fee should be set – at minimum – to cover the cost to the local government to monitor and enforce compliance of bike rental companies with the city’s requirements for safety and clear right-of-ways.

Berlin lawmakers should study whether the market could support a higher fee on private bike-share companies that could generate revenue for a public endowment to maintain and improve Berlin infrastructure.

4) Regulate the number of bikes and promote sustainability

It is critical to collect data on the number of bikes in Berlin. Currently the city doesn’t ask and private companies don’t tell. In other cities, the lack of regulation in the market has meant a huge overproduction, with staggering mountains of bike waste the result.

The Senate should study whether there is an optimal ratio – using modeling and examples from other cities. The Berlin Senate should consider capping the number of dockless bikes allowed citywide and/or developing a phased launch, so that public right-of-ways are not overwhelmed and bike waste is not generated. The city should create a learning exchange with transportation agencies in comparable global cities managing a sizable private dockless bike rental market to draw from their experiences.

The Berlin Senate should follow dockless bikes before and beyond their life in Berlin’s dockless bikes programs to collect information on the full life-cycle of the bikes and develop and advocate for sustainable supply chains and recycling.

5) Collect and protect rider data

Berlin’s local government should require that private bike rental service providers share anonymous ridership data with the city. This user data can be invaluable to designing improvements to the city cycling network and better integrating bikeways and parking – and public bike-share services with Berlin’s transit system and overall urban mobility strategy.

This step goes hand-in-hand with protecting personal data and prohibiting private companies operating in Berlin from combining the identities of users with the GPS data of the bicycles or passing it on to third parties.

Some have speculated that “smart bike” data is a vital part of the business model of these companies, and how they will eventually make money. Not on the low fees and high costs of bikes and maintenance, but on selling the vast amounts of data they possess on their users’ movements.

Data privacy laws in Europe are among the strongest in the world, but they require a regulatory body to take an interest in their enforcement.

Looking ahead, acting now

The dream of many planners and mobility advocates continues to be an integrated transit system. This is the vision endorsed by the staff of Bundestag politician and member of die Linke, Sabine Leidig: “Buying a subway/tram/bus-ticket should include a share-bike-ride for free.”

Die Linke believes the best provider for such a system would be public: “In Berlin that would mean we must end giving permissions to private companies and BVG should start its own share-bike-system.” For now, this vision is entirely aspirational.

The future of this mode of shared transportation – as with vehicle ride-sharing – is more likely to be a mix of owners and offerings, than a single type of equipment procured by a municipality. The Berlin government should strive to work with the private bike-share market, so that Berliners can see maximum benefit from this new wave in transportation.

Photos by Jennifer Warburg