domingo, 29 de marzo de 2015

The Fatal Flaw in Bogotá's Public Bikes Plan

Capital Bikeshare bikes in Washington, D.C., which receive public subsidies. (Photo: Wikipedia)
Finally, after years of dithering, trial runs, suspensions and false starts, Bogotá last week accepted a proposal for a public bicycles service - and it portends disaster.

The winner is a Colombo-Chinese consortium with no experience in bicycles, one of whose owners has a history marked by corruption and incompetence.

EcoBici bikes, in Mexico City, which receive
public subsidies. (Photo: Wikipedia)
How did we come to this? Several reputable organizations and companies with real experience in the bike business expressed interest in administering Bogotá's public bikes, but they pulled out because they couldn't see how to make it work financially. In contrast, winning consortium BiciBogotá not only says it can make a profit providing public bikes for Bogotá, but even promises to pay the city a 35% slice of its profits.

To a lot of us, including several of the losing contenders, that sounds completely unrealistic.

A representative of Next Bike, a German company which had expressed interest in Bogotá's public bikes system but decided it was economically inviable, told La Otra Cara website in 2014 that "they're going to supply Bogotá with U.S. $15.00 bicycles which will be destroyed after a few months' use."

Barclays Bikes in London, which are sponsored by the bank.
(Photo: Wikipedia)
There's no apparent reason why reputable companies, with track records administering public bike programs in other cities, should not be interested in Bogotá. After all, it's a big, flat city with a growing economy and a reputation for cycling. And, while Bogotá has lots of crime and poverty, so do Medellin, Buenos Aires, Argentina, Santiago, Chile and Mexico City, where public bike programs function.

However, Bogotá's government, despite its leftist credentials, approached the deal with an intensely capitalist mentality. Rather than envisioning the bikes as a public service deserving subsidies because of its quality of life benefits thru better health, reduced pollution and less traffic congestion, the government wants the bikes to generate profits.

Perhaps such schemes can stand on their own economically in rich cities such as New York and
London, with huge tourist flows, where residents can shell out the dollars to pedal and where advertising space commands premium rates. But that's not Bogotá, Colombia.

Bogotá's public bikes: Subsidies, no, profits, yes.
(Photo: David Luna)
Even New York's Citi Bike program has struggled financially, the Washington Post reports, despite sponsorships from Citibank and MasterCard, while Washington D.C.'s Capital Bikeshare has receives clean air and anti-congestion grants.

From the Post story quoting Chris Hamilton, a regional transportation official:

"They can’t go into starting bikeshare thinking that it’s going to pay for itself. It should be treated like any other part of the transportation system: like the buses, the bikeways, the rail, the sidewalks."

If a city declines to view bikeshare this way, making the public investment that entails, Hamilton says, "I think you set it up to fail." 

This is particularly true because those vehicles which do congest the city, generate pollution and destroy our health do receive huge - if often invisible . subsidies thru free parking and the way we all suffer under their negative impacts.

Bogotá's public bikes story smacks of a mayor rushing to ink a contract before he's out the door. That might be because he wants to leave a legacy or possibly for other, less admirable motives. But, either way, it looks like a route to disaster.

Nevertheless, I'm going to cross my fingers, knock on wood, hold out hope and keep the faith that this just might succeed. If it doesn't, after all, it'll be a huge setback for bicycling in Bogotá.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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