By Alexandra Bussler
In an era of increasing individualism and acceleration, where patience is rare and the better-faster-cheaper rules, urban citizens’ expectations towards public transport are changing. What counts seems to be velocity, convenience, flexibility, reliability. Instead of delayed or non-arriving buses, inconvenient operating times and adherence schemes, public transport should fulfil the needs of its users with increased network flexibility (possibility of switching across different means), accessibility (it has to be financially attractive) and availability (24/7).
However, municipal governments’ lacking planning autonomy or funding, missing fiscal incentives, and citizen’s missing will or political awareness hinder the shift to emission-free mobility. I propose two additional factors that risk impeding this urgently needed shift: the lack of public transport monitoring and green tokenism. For this, I will have a closer look at the public bikes of Vilamoura in the municipality of Loulé, Portugal, who are seen as a pioneer in the transition to sustainable public mobility.
Need for a flexible and needs-oriented public transport network
A major share of worldwide CO2 emissions come from transports, particularly personal transportation; also in Portugal, transport is the second biggest (24.7 %) emitter after the energy sector (25.7%). Hence, to meet international emission targets, reducing fossil-based transport has to be high up on the policy agenda. This remains today a major challenge for decision makers. In many cities worldwide, efforts to green transport have accelerated the introduction of innovative alternative public transport schemes, such as demand responsive transport or bike sharing systems. Bike usage is a particularly attractive transport mode, since it not only reduces emissions and traffic, but also improves air quality and public health. In Portugal’s bigger cities, public bikes are increasingly integrated in mobility planning. BUGA bikes were the pioneer, launched in 2000 by the municipality of Aveiro, and since 2017 we find the GIRA bikes in Lisbon.
Yet, urban decision makers are still facing challenging questions: How to develop effective cycling policies? Which approach fits my city? How to uphold the quality of infrastructure? How to anchor cycling in society? Aka, how to trigger the transition of practices from carbon-intensive to low-carbon mobility? Public bike systems need to be smart, in the sense of adapted to the specific user needs within a favourable environment for biking. Only then can public bikes, as a public transport, turn into a valid alternative to cars.
Vilamoura public bikes
Vilamoura, a district of Loulé, has a public bike sharing system since 2012. It is praised as a Portuguese pioneer in the transition to low-emission public mobility. With 43 stations, 352 docking stations and 260 bikes it covers the majority of Vilamoura. On 20 km bike lanes, residents and tourists can travel between city centre and residential zones. Most stations are however in the centre near the beaches. Like in most cities with public bikes, the rental scheme has a flat rate with a maximum of 30€ / year and the first 45 minutes are free. Operating hours are only 8 a.m.-8 p.m. throughout most of the year, and 7 a.m.-2 a.m. in July and August.
Through Inframoura, the municipal company in charge, I gained access to the system’s user data for 2012-2018. An analysis showed that bikes only attracted increasing interest during the first 2 years. In total kilometres, user numbers or average daily usage, Vilamoura public bikes is on a downward trend since 2014. Bikes are mostly used during tourist season, and around the centre, beaches or luxury residential areas. Surprisingly, public bikes only seem to be a summer tourist attraction. Supposedly embedded in a municipal strategy towards low-emission mobility, the system doesn’t appear to have changed Vilamourans’ mobility habits. Contrastingly, the number of cars in Vilamoura’s centre rose since 2014, even during the summer peak in bike usage.
A closer look at Vilamoura’s transport planning might give us a clue on these developments: as a subcontractor of Loulé’s Municipality, the public-private company Inframoura manages most infrastructure planning, including transport. It seems that the public bikes were not articulated with a wider transport strategy restricting car usage and integrating the specific public transport needs of Vilamourans. This somewhat dismissed the chance of turning bikes into a viable and attractive mobility alternative. Nevertheless, despite the decrease in bike usage, Inframoura continues to expand the network and invested into a modern mobility monitorization system in 2017. Has the usage decline really gone unnoticed by the municipality of Loulé and Inframoura? Or is it considered as an expected scenario?
Green tokenism describes undertakings that pretend to be ‘doing good’ when in reality they solely aim at ensuring the bottom line, the minimum necessary. What happened in Vilamoura could be such a case, since the local government apparently thrives for the recognition to be sustainable without actually pursuing a real sustainability agenda. It seems like the municipality either neglected to monitor the public bike system or was less worried about really changing local mobility habits. The concept of green tokenism could be expanded to the appropriation of the sustainability agenda by private businesses that actually compete with the public transport solutions for users, like the popping-up of platform-mobility services such as UBER bikes or the Lime scooters in Lisbon. It is important to think about how public transport systems answer to the rising popularity of these private mobility services.
How to make smart public bike systems?
This short analysis of Vilamoura’s public bike sharing system leaves public transport planning in general with two big challenges: 1) to provide an integrative and holistic transport approach focused on users and infrastructure, that makes a transition of mobility practices viable, and 2) how to articulate public mobility solutions with platform capitalism mobility services that risk pulling users away from the former. Finally, to better calibrate innovative urban mobility strategies, it is crucial to ensure a systematic monitoring of usage data: Who uses the system and when? If less people use it, why? What needs to be changed? As, by definition, public bikes are public transport, they need to be integrated into a smart strategic transport framework that accompanies user needs over time.
Alexandra Bussler is a Phd Candidate and a Research Assistant at ICS-ULisboa.