All posts by Oliver O'Brien

Bikeshare in London – Borough Update

While TfL ponders London-wide regulation and freezes Santander Cycles, borough-by-borough rollout of dockless in London continues.

  • Wandsworth has a forthcoming pilot, and has published the responses to a questionnaire given to six potential operators (although, some blank lines suggest that some interesting rows, e.g. cost to the councils, may have been censored to spare commercial blushes.)
  • Nearby Richmond is also planning on trialing dockless “by April”.
  • Redbridge is bringing Ofo and Urbo in on 2 March. This will give Urbo a contiguous area across three north-east London boroughs, however all three are outer boroughs with generally lower existing cycling journeys or infrastructure than the inner city.
  • Ofo was in to the eastern half of Camden last week, but then abruptly withdrew back to the Islington border.
  • Ofo are also strongly rumoured to be arriving in Hammersmith & Fulham, soon.
  • Southwark borough is also bringing in two bikeshare operators, per their recently published strategy document – Mobike are hinting that they are one and I understand that Ofo is likely to be the other. For both Ofo and Mobike this makes a lot of sense – Southwark is a big inner city borough obly partially served by Santander Cycles, and importantly for these two operators, they already are in place in thr City immediately to the north. The launch date is uncofirmed but believed to be in March.
  • If you have any corrections, updates or anonymous tips please let me know via email (o.obrien (at) ucl.ac.UK) or Twitter DMs (@oobr).

I’ve rated each borough based on its provision – current, announced and rumoured (so likely some errors) of this all-important last-mile mobility addition to our streets:

Key

  • A – 2+ operators in/confirmed, at least 1 of which covers/allows >75% borough.
  • B – At least one operator, in/confirmed, covering significant part (>25%) of borough.
  • C – Operator(s) only covering small area, and/or only rumours of new operator.
  • D – No operators or positive news.
  • + – Improvement expected soon.
  • * – Simple projected % for 2018, based on Census data – 2011% and 2001-2011 rates of change

I intend to keep this table up to date as things change, and make corrections where I discover things are wrong above. In case it doesn’t view correctly for you, you can see the full table on Google Sheets here.

I’ve also updated my previous map to show the latest state of affairs:

See also my thoughts on the future of bikeshare in London in general.

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High quality lithographic prints of London data, designed by Oliver O'Brien

Future Transport Report and Bikeshare in London

The GLA published an interesting report last week: Future transport – How is London responding to technological innovation. It focused mainly on drones, driverless cars and app-based services (as an example, CityMapper’s experimenting on turning its huge desire-line dataset, created from the data of its millions of users and their journeys, into a group-based taxishare service), but also included some details on bikeshare, and in particular the dockless “revolution” that is currently underway in the capital.

Not Looking Good for Santander Cycles

Some tidbits from the report include some depressing news from Transport for London regarding future of the Santander Cycles dock-based bikeshare system – “the scheme is also limited geographically to central London, with TfL having no plans to extend it.” Ouch.

Well, that’s a pity, but not entirely surprising. The reason are both political and financial:

  • It was a system launched and promoted by a previous mayor, of the “other party”, who was more focused on cycling and also less afraid to challenge the status quo. The existence of the system (despite its problems), and the associated disruptive – but brilliant – segregated cycle lanes – have been revolutionary. But they will be ever associated with a previous mayor.
  • Also despite the system being almost eight years old, TfL is still subsidising the system by over £3m a year. Too much unnecessary redistribution going on – using vans – presumably because they always have done it or other schemes have. Vans and drivers are expensive! And they clog up the streets. Incentivise users to do their own distribution – by using the bike itself – for rewards – much cheaper! The New York City system has “Bike Angels” (pic below) which actually has pretty decent rewards for riders who rebalance. There has also been an, I think, frankly misguided focus on keeping docking station density unnecessarily high throughout the area, and a focus on journey numbers over user utility, means the main beneficiaries are city workers getting from Waterloo to the Bank during weekdays and tourists circling Hyde Park at the weekends. Both groups have numerous other options, so the bikeshare here isn’t really solving any “last mile” mobility problems.

A flat rate of say 50p/20 min or £1/30 min, similar to the dockless systems (generally 50p/30 min), and moving the 20% least used docking stations so they were outside every tube/train station and inside every park and larger open spaces in Zone 2 to provide a ready source of obvious rides, would probably end up being more profitable, as there would be a massive surge in usage (right now it’s cheaper to get the bus!), particularly if it was integrated into Oyster card/contactless and was covered by daily/weekly capping. Why does it need to be profitably anyway? The buses (in London) aren’t, and the bikes encourage healthier outcomes, both to the user and surrounding pedestrians, than sitting on a bus emitting pollution.

London-Wide Regulation of Dockless

One important point from the report is suggesting that TfL should take the lead in regulating and so controlling the provision of dockless bikeshare systems on London streets, instead of the individual boroughs as present. This is an “obvious” thing to do – it is time consuming and inefficient for each operator to, assuming that they want a pan-London rollout, have 33 sets of negotiations with the 32 separate borough councils and the City of London, when much of London’s other transport operations are specified, operated or regulated by one entity – Transport for London. It also slows the rollout, makes the systems very expensive for operators to maintain if they are fragmented, particularly if each borough has slight differences in their specification (e.g. on maintenance response times). More importantly, it makes it less useful and more confusing for the user – both the start and the end of an intended journey need to be within an operating zone. Borough boundaries are somewhat arbitrary to most people living in London, and not easily noticed when crossing them. “London” is a more familiar area. Most commute journeys in London are radial – going towards or away from the centre (see pic below). The reluctance of many of the operators to even publish their operating zone except on their individual apps, also makes discovering the allowable area of a system – let alone using it – a challenge.

Curiously, a lot of the press leading from this report seemed to suggest that the recommendation of TfL taking on regulation of dockless bikeshare in London was in some way a clampdown on their operations, or a tightening of the environment, and would be therefore bad for the operators and presumably therefore good for those wanting to see these bikes off the streets. Rather an odd, negative spin. I don’t think it’s not that at all. Having TfL specifying and setting operational parameters for dockless systems, rather than 33 geographically limited entities doing so, can only be good for everyone concerned.

Smarter City? It’s All About the Data

My own take is that TfL regulation would be welcomed, but it should be linked with an incorporation of data into TfL’s own open data platform. A smart city is an open city, one where availability data on useable assets in the public realm is accessible to all, not to those tied to a particular platform (even if the transaction part needs operator control) or hidden to hide poor public value for money or failing/missing assets, as is happening for a system in a certain city up north. There is a need to democratise the information, in order to digitise the city. To this mind, dockless operators should be mandated to open up data on the location of bikes available to hire, hubs (preferred parking areas) and operating zones. This kind of information has generally always been made available by dock-based systems, dockless systems have so far not been compelled to release this as open data yet – at least in the UK.

To this mind, I am contemplating launching an operator data openness scoreboard for the UK – similar to one that was unveiled at a recent bikeshare hackathon event in Washington DC. I’ve also put together an interactive map showing the current coverage in London of the four active systems (Urbo, Ofo, Mobike and the dock-based Santander Cycles), plus known “hubs” where you are most likely to find bikes available for hire – N.B. not all the operators are using a hub-based approach across their whole areas. Because of the lack of open API data from most of the operators, much of this map is manually put together and so may be a little out of date – I will do my best to keep it current. The crucial data missing here of course is the current locations of bikes available to hire. For now, you’ll need to use each individual app.

How Dockless Might Work in London

Personally, I think that hub locations are one of the most important features of the new dockless systems. They can act as a point that is regularly stocked with bikes, meaning that regular users might not need to keep doing different journeys on foot to hunt down a bike. They also help the system keep order – they may help to minimise the amount of inconsiderate parking. Currently, the reward for finishing a journey at such a hub is minimal. Operators will have to be more ambitious if the hub-inducement model work. Something like halving the fee to finish a ride in a hub, and doubling it to finish a ride outside of an operating zone altogether. It should also be possible to have hubs outside of operating areas, for example, on specific pieces of private land where access has been granted, but the local authority has not granted permission.

More generally, I think, for large western cities like London, where pedestrian space will always be at a premium, the dockless model, as it stands, will not work. Either there won’t be enough bikes, so that no one uses the system, or the labour costs will be too high for the operators, or there will be too many bikes causing clutter. The system for London that I envisage, will work, is that Zone 1 gets around 1000 “mandatory hubs”, boxes painted on the ground, each around the size of a car parking space but mainly on the pavement, where any cycles from any of the dockless cycles may be left. TfL or boroughs get tough with the operators and users and impound bikes left outside of these zones by users, with operators getting fined for each impound and the operators passing on these fines (should they choose) to the delinquent user. Outside of Zone 1, the system could work as present, with recommended hubs. However boroughs/TfL need to stop operators creating hubs branded with only their own logos and signs, and instead create generic hubs. They can still just be painted lines on the ground – the bikes themselves should be all the branding needed.

See also my borough by borough scores, or the interactive map.

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High quality lithographic prints of London data, designed by Oliver O'Brien

Dockless Continues to Expand – Here’s the Data

It looks like Brent will be the next London borough to get dockless bikeshare, with Mobike likely to be setting up in the borough within the next few weeks. The operator is not confirmed, although strongly hinted at, including by the council themselves. The choice of Mobike makes sense, as the operator already has a fleet of bikes in the two boroughs to its south, allowing journeys across quite a wide area of west London – although if you want to journey to the centre of the capital on a Mobike, you will still need to finish your journey in Islington or the City, or return the bike back to the three West London boroughs.

Above is my latest map of London boroughs, showing bikeshare provision. The red circles show Santander Cycles docking stations, while the other colours show the spread of dockless bikeshare – yellow (Ofo), orange (Mobike) and green (Urbo). Darker grey shades show areas of the capital with a high proportion of the resident population cycling to work (2011 census).

As well as these maps, I have now published interactive maps of the Ofo, Mobike and Urbo current operating areas in London (for all three) and other UK cities (for Ofo). Ofo were kind enough to supply me with their boundary files, for the others, which define their areas by borough boundaries in London, I have simply dissolved these boundaries. Simple spatial analysis shows the current area, in square kilometres, of these systems. See the “Numbers” tab for the latest numbers.

Currently, there are:

There are also individual dock maps for other operators in London (Santander Cycles, 110km2) and Oxford (Oxonbike, 8km2).

Operators do not supply consistent numbers of bikes operating in their areas, so I am not currently listing those. Various press quotes suggest 230 Urbos, 1000 Mobikes and 400 Ofos in London, 150 Ofos in Cambridge, 100 Ofos in Oxford and 200 Ofos in Norwich. This numbers likely include significant numbers that are not currently on the streets and available for use.

In parts of Islington, there are noticeably fewer Ofo bikes than a few weeks back, where they were previously very visible on on the main roads, while Mobikes are very visible but lined up in neat, operator-placed rows, rather than in the more organic placement you would expect from bona-fide users. There have been no London usage numbers released by the operators so far, despite having been operating for nearly half a year, which suggests they are perhaps not great. To be fair – it is wintertime and it is still early days.

Railway Station Numbers

You can click on all the images in this blogpost to go explore each view further on the interactive map.

The ORR publishes station entry/exit numbers on an annual basis, on a “best guess” basis, using ticket sales, gate information and modelling. The data is split by ticket type – full fare, reduced fare (off-peak tickets, tickets bought with railcards, advance tickets, child tickets etc) and season tickets. They make this data available as an Excel spreadsheet, so I’ve crunched it and have produced a couple of maps based on this data. I have also consolidated the total counts and ticket type counts data on CDRC Data.

The first shows the total numbers of entries/exits across the last year that the data is available for (2016-7), with a blended colour, with different red/green/blue strengths proportional to the % numbers for season tickets (red), full fare (blue) and reduced fare (green) entering/exiting National Rail services at that station. The area of the circle is proportional to the total numbers, combined across the ticket types. I’m using a minimum circle size, as otherwise some stations would be practically invisible on the map, as they can see days go by without any passengers – or trains.

Some interesting patterns – blues for many of the airport stations, where off peak tickets generally aren’t available, and most people don’t think to get advance tickets, such as to/from Stansted:

…and almost no-one pays full fare for some of the remotest stations:

Purples on the Welsh valleys lines, showing mainly commuters and peak time users:

Bright greens for stations serving major destinations where advance tickets are readily available, such Newcastle-upon-Tyne:

…popular tourist places, where many people will be visiting outside of the rush hours and at weekends, such as Oxford and Bicester Village retail outlet:

…and areas well covered by discounted travelcards, like Liverpool’s Merseyrail:

Reds where the season ticket holders dominate, such as Chelmsford and Colchester to the north-east of London:

Browns showing an “urban mix” of season ticket commuters and travelcard local journey makers, like in Straford, London:

See this map on TubeCreature.

The second map looks at the change in numbers between 2015/6 and 2016/7 (a major methodological change means I cannot use data from earlier years, for a more complete time series). You can view the absolute numbers for both years, but what is of more interest is looking at the changes. The circle fill colour is the % change (with 100% green for a doubling of numbers and 100% for a halving of numbers). The area of the circle represents the absolute change in numbers. The border colour emphasises whether the change is an increase or decrease. Stations with little change will show up as small circles. The biggest trends are the new lines to Oxford via Bicester, and from Edinburgh to Tweedbank. In both cases, the lines were only open for part of the first year, so an increase would be expected even if the day-by-day numbers were flat:

Big drops show in parts of London – the Goblin line having been closed for much of 2016/7 due to a bungled overhead line installation:

There is also a big drop at Kensington Olympia’s however the source reports says this is due to a methodological change – i.e. it may not have actually been a significant drop at all. This is somewhat puzzling, as there are ticket gates at this station, so in/out numbers should be pretty solid, but it may be relating to due to many fewer people, than previously thought, transferring in-barrier to the sparse District line services at this station. When they do this, they are no longer considered to be National Rail passengers and so have “exited” the station here, from a National Rail perspective.

Most parts of the country see a steady increase (light greens):

The big exception being area served by Southern trains – with them being on strike for much of the second year, the fall in numbers in this region is almost universal:

See this map on TubeCreature. You can also download all the total counts and ticket type counts data from CDRC Data.

Three Bikeshare Systems now Competing Directly in London

[Updated] Following Ofo’s recent expansion to Islington and the City of London, Mobike has also expanded to Islington and the City – here’s a set of operator-placed bikes outside Cally Road tube station:

This presumably means that you can now cycle from Acton in Ealing, the original London location for Mobike, to Islington, for 50p/half hour. You can’t end your journey in between the two boroughs, though. It would probably take you over an hour, so it would work out the same price as getting the London Overground between the two (£1.50 off-peak via Willesden Junction), in a slower but more healthy way.

The bikes have registration numbers starting “A02”, I think this means they are unfortunately the same design as the cramped and uncomfortable Manchester bikes (which are, I understanding going to be replaced soon with new European-market-designed bikes). Mancunians presumably would have been unimpressed with London getting the new ones first!

The new bicycles are not appear in in the Mobike app yet, although this may just be because the app is a bit flakey – you have to pan and zoom very close to the location to see it on the map, and the app regularly reports “servers busy”. Now if they just released an open bike location API it would make it a lot easier for everyone to find their bikes…

Just down the road, here’s another operator-placed set of Ofo bikeshare bikes, near Mount Pleasant, right on the borough boundary line between Islington and Camden:

The latter location is also served by the dock-based incumbent, Santander Cycles, for example seen here a few hundred metres further on, in Holborn Circus:

Ofo and Mobike bikes are allowed to be parked in the City, along with Santander Cycles (at docking stations). Only Santander Cycles can be parked in Camden borough, but that hasn’t stopped many Ofo bikes appearing available for use in Camden borough anyway – in theory, all of these users would get a penalty:

In practice, Ofo (and the other operators) want to expand, it’s the boroughs that are moving slowly (with good reason, after the oBike debacle) so I would imagine they will be slow to penalise such out-of-zone journeys. It’s all a bit confusing for the average person who just wants to do a quick one-way journey on a shared bike.

The bikeshare wars continue, meanwhile, plenty of London’s 33 boroughs* still don’t have any bikeshare system in them (see map at top, which shows grey shading for areas with an established commute-by-bicycle residential community).

Surely it’s only a matter of time though…

*Including the City of London which isn’t technically a borough.

Five Bikeshares in London


Bikeshare system coverage in London, November 2017. Shading: Proportion of people who cycle to work.

There are now five bikeshare systems operating in London:

Santander Cycles (Central London)

Photo: Copyright TfL.

Santander Cycles are red, they launched in July 2010 and currently have 9500 bikes on the street (around 12000 in total), covering an area of 110km across 11 boroughs and the City of London – this sounds impressive, but it is only 7% of London’s area (based on a 500m station buffer), and equates one bike for every 950 people in the capital. You can see the live state of the system (in terms of empty/full docking stations) on Bike Share Map. As a publically funded system, Santander Cycles have an excellent open data policy and release live docking station data which can be readily mapped, location information and historic journeys through TfL’s Open Data Portal.

Santander Cycles last week unveiled their “50000-series” bikes which are part-manufactured in the UK, with smaller wheels, bluetooth asset tags and a number of other enhancements, although in technology terms they still very much third-generation bikeshare bikes (“dumb” bike, smart dock) and the system remains expensive to use with a complicated pricing structure (£90/year or £2/day membership for journeys under half-hour, £2 per extra half-hour), with any expansion hamstrung by the very expensive docking station installation costs – so its footprint has only slightly expanded in the last few years. There have been some other innovations, such as widespread use of Blaze laserlights, and its current sponsor has also invested considerably in promoting the system. The Santander Cycles system looks expensive and rigid, particularly compared with the newer alternatives. It is, however, in terms of bike quality, maintenance and use, and public acceptance, the “gold standard” of bikeshare in London.

Mobike (LB Ealing)

Mobike (orange bikes) were the first dockless fourth generation* (smart bike, dumb lock) compliant (working with local authorities) system in London, which launched in Ealing in July this year – a far from obvious place to launch, as Ealing has a very low tradition of cycling in general (no dark areas in the map above). However, Mobike did have UK experience before, having had a bigger and higher-profile launch in two of Greater Manchester boroughs. Mobike persevered through initial bad publicity due to vandalism and can be seen on many streets of the city. Personally, I found Mobike extremely uncomfortable to cycle – their bikes have been shipped from the far east with little customisation, and their frames are designed for the far eastern rather than the European build (Europeans are typically bigger!) At its maximum extended saddle position, it was uncomfortably tiny to pedal one. This is a pity, presumably the extremely cheap mass manufacturing costs of sticking with their global design were too tempting.

The Ealing launch had a reported 750 bicycles although as ever you have to take the numbers with a pinch of salt. A quick look at the app reveals around 160 bikes in the preferred zones and around 10 parked elsewhere. Mobike is very cheap and has a simple to understand pricing model (£29 joining fee then 50p per half-hour ride). One nice touch is that if you have a membership of the Manchester system, it will work fine in London too. Ealing is not a densely populated inner-city borough and the 750 bicycles serve a huge 56 square kilometres – in practice, as shown on the app map, the bikes (and zones, shown with a “P”) are clustered in the eastern edge of the borough, around Acton. I wish Mobike good luck but they need more comfortable bikes and to get into a borough with an established cycling tradition, and operate around a larger area than the few square miles in the eastern end of this borough. Mobike, as a fully commercial operation, does not release bikeshare open data for Ealing (dockless bikeshare data does have theoretically considerable economic value), although they have plans to release it for Manchester (likely a stipulation from the local authority there) so maybe it will come here too in time.

Ofo (LB Hackney, LB Islington and City)

Ofo (yellow bikes) are, like Mobike, a big global player in dockless fourth generation bikeshare. They launched in Hackney – London’s spiritual home of regular cycling – in September, and have just announced (this week) an expansion to the neighbouring borough of Islington and the City of London, meaning serious commute potential of these bikes.

I have ridden an Ofo bike (a one-off in Manchester) and found it extremely comfortable – it felt like riding a “real” bike rather than an approximation of one. Like Mobike, Ofo have a low joining fee, a flat rate for usage and the membership can be used in their other systems (including Cambridge in the UK). Ofo has targetted boroughs with a good cycling tradition and also is, in some parts of the boroughs, in direct competition with the incumbent Santander Cycles – the only one to do so (see map below). Hopefully this competition will lead to innovations on both sides and not damage either.

Urbo (LB Waltham Forest)

Photo: Paul Gasson on Twitter.

Urbo (green bikes) are another dockless fourth generation bikeshare operator. They are an Irish company, although they are buying the bikes and technology (e.g. the smart lock and the apps) from China and customising locally. Their bikes are the most attractive of the new dockless bikeshare bikes I have seen (with a nice curve design on the frame) and appear (I haven’t ridden one yet) to be similar in overall build style, and so hopefully comfort, to Ofo’s bikes. Waltham Forest (39 sqkm in east London with some tradition of cycling, on its western edge) is their first system and it has only just launched this week. They also do not yet release open data (although they have only just launched). Ofo may be most useful for residents of Higham Hill, Poets Corner, the top of Walthamstow Village and certain other parts of the borough to get quickly to the stations on the efficient Victoria Line or Overground to central London.

Like Ofo and Mobike, Urbo have designated zones in their host boroughs and induce users (via cheaper journeys) to end their journeys in these zones (shown with the STOP icon on their app’s map, here). These zones come with a bespoke street sign erected by the local authority, as well as the usual taped/painted markings on the ground. It is a little surprising that Waltham Forest have included the operator logo on the signs (presumably to Urbo’s delight) as there is no good reason why other dockless systems, when they inevitably arrive here too, should use these spaces too. It is kind of like the council painting new car parking spaces on a street and putting up a sign, with the Ford logo, saying they are spaces for Ford cars only. They are just spaces on a road/pavement…

oBike (Withdrawn)

Then there’s oBike (orangey-yellow) which launched in July without coordinating with boroughs (using the Uber-style “forgiveness is easier than permission” modal), had a number of its bikes impounded by Wandsworth borough and withdrew from the capital – almost all of its bikes are lurking behind locked gates in an industrial park in Rainham so they aren’t included on the maps here. There is the odd one that got away from the purge and remains in central London. They will return, I’m sure, once the company has a strategy for compliance with TfL and the boroughs. oBike did at least wake up authorities to the fourth generation revolution, and force some much-needed policy documents to be hastily released. I rode a few oBikes and found them more comfortable than the Mobike but not as good as Ofo, Urbo or Santander Cycles.

November 3rd Snapshot

System  Type            Locations Area
/km2
Launch
Date
Reported
Bikes**
Available
Bikes
(Estimates)
Santander
Cycles
 Dock
 -based
Central London 110 July 2010 12000 Was 10800
now 9600***
oBike  Pure
 dockless
All London,
but withdrawn
1570 July 2017 400 initially
5500 planned
Was 1500
now 6
Mobike  Zoned
 dockless
West: Ealing 56 July 2017 750 160
Ofo  Incentive
 dockless
North: Hackney,
Islington & City
37 Sept 2017 300-400 Around 200
Urbo  Zoned
 dockless
East: Waltham
Forest
39 Nov 2017 250 40
(so far)

Of course, it’s hard to know how well these systems are being used, particularly as dockless systems don’t generally release this information (except if the numbers are particularly good, as occasional press releases). Santander Cycles reliably gets around 20000-40000 usages a day (i.e. 2-4 usages/bike/day), and certainly, on the more central parts of the Cycle Superhighways during rush hour, there is a sea of red Santander Cycles amongst the other cyclists. Anecdotally, I’ve a couple of Ofo bikes in use, but this is a bit unfair on Ofo and Urbo – I regularly cycle through Hackney on my own bike, but don’t generally pass Waltham Forest and Ealing. My sneaking suspicion is that Ofo will do quite well, by targeting the boroughs where there are going to be a lot of cyclists, and that Mobike and Urbo will either have to expand or will stay irrelevant in London’s overall cycling picture. This sounds harsh, but, as DataShine Region Commute and TubeHeartbeat show, Londoners move beyond their borough boundaries a lot. We shall see, we live in interesting times for bikeshare.

This map (an inset of the map above) shows the reach of the four systems (excluding oBike) in London. The shading behind shows the proportion of residents there who cycle to work (2011 Census data, Copyright ONS) and therefore likely enjoy good cycle infrastructure and community (e.g. cycle cafes, cycle repair workshops) that would help integrate bikeshare. Parts of Southwark and Lambeth look woefully underserved.

* The first generation of bikeshare systems were free bikes, left on streets for people to use. Inevitably they were stolen or broken. Second generation bikeshare systems used “dumb docking stations” where cash was used to release them. Users were therefore only out by the cash amount if they didn’t release them, and operators didn’t know where they were without visiting the docks, so again they got stolen and/or broken. Third generation bikeshare systems require the user to use credit cards (and so charge a large amount for non-return) and use smart docking stations which can report the status of themselves and their bikes. They have been very popular for the last few years, but require a large up-front investment and are very expensive to operate and maintain, so most are publically subsidised. Minor advances to these (such as GPS on some bikes, or integration with transit smart cards) are sometimes termed as fourth generation but are actually really just usability tweaks to fundamentally the same third generation concept. I am terming the new dockless systems, where the bikes know where they are (through an app, or their own communications) as fourth generation. Physical docking stations can still exist on the ground, to manage the bikes or provide a known starting location, but the bikes don’t have to be left there, if inconvenient – the “hybrid” model, as used in Brighton. Zoned dockless systems (Urbo, Mobike) have tapes on the ground as “preferred” docking zones, replacing the physical docks. Incentive dockless systems (Ofo) don’t even have the tapes – just virtual locations that appear in the app). The Pure dockless systems (oBike) don’t even have anything – inevitably resulting in bikes being scattered through an area.

** These numbers, reported in media and press releases, will invariably be higher that the “available bikes” currently on the streets (or visible in the app, in the case of the dockless systems). The difference can typically be explained by bikes will be in repair or reported broken, some will be in active use (although generally I try to measure at night to avoid this) or in redistribution, some will be in the warehouse, ready to come out in the near future. Ultimately though, if the bikes aren’t available for use, then they aren’t really any good to anyone, so bikes on streets is the number the operators should be reporting!

*** For larger, commuter heavy systems (like Santander Cycles) that are dock-based, there are good operational reasons to slightly reduce the numbers of bikes available during the winter months (where the commuter mode share will be higher) as the flows are more undirectional and therefore full-dock pressures are otherwise worse. In the summer, tourist use acts as a natural rebalancer.

Social Benefits from Public Bike Share Data

I presented at the BikePlus Future of Bike Share Conference in Manchester in late September, as part of a panel session on social benefits of public Bike Share Data. I framed my presentation in the context of open data, whereby operators or technology providers of bikeshare systems, and/or municipalities containing them, release data on the systems on an open data basis, allowing unrestricted analysis and reuse of the data. This is distinct from controlled access to the data, where typically an operator provides data to a local council in exchange for the authority’s blessing/cooperation/support.

The main part of the talk was in five sections, each outlining a social benefit of public data for bikeshare:

  1. Academic research, including themes such as urban mobility, multi-modal journeys, health outcomes
  2. Creating “app” ecosystems around a bikeshare – making greater and better use of often publicly financed systems, by the public.
  3. Effective targeting of cycling infrastructure – understanding where the users go so that infrastructure investments are beneficial.
  4. Improved public visibility – Press coverage and helping with public acceptance of a private business using publically owned assets (i.e. pavement space).
  5. Better management – novel visualisations of fleet and activity, and enabling easy experimentation of new redistribution strategies devised by specialists.

The final part of the presentation was a research and data summary from my perspective, and a wishlist. In particular, I mentioned and enthused on GBFS, an emerging, operator-led standard format for bikeshare data, which will likely be useful for integrating bikeshare with independent multi-city journey planners (e.g. Google Maps, CityMapper) – and useful for me too in managing data feeds from over 250 cities currently, in Bike Share Map.

My presentation can be viewed here:

The conference also included a led ride around some of Manchester’s key cycle infrastructure, including the Oxford Road segregated lanes. The bikeshare bikes provided for the ride were dockless bikes supplied by Ofo (who run UK systems in Cambridge and Hackney, London, as well as various other locations around the world) and Urbo (a new Irish start-up who are adopting the Chinese dockless model and bringing their bikes to Waltham Forest, also in London, launching at the end of October).

Photo: © Cyclistsinthecity, via Twitter.

Eight Ways to Better Flow Maps

As part of a presentation I gave yesterday at the RSAI-BIS (Regional Science Association International – British & Irish Section) annual conference, on DataShine Travel to Work maps, I outlined the following eight techniques to avoid swamping origin/destination (aka flow) maps with masses of data, typically shown as straight lines between each pair of locations.

Lines tend to obscure other lines, making the flows of interest and significance harder to spot, and creating an ugly visual impact. See above for an extreme example which shows (all) cycle-to-work flows in inner-city London. Large numbers of flow lines, if delivered as vectors to a web browser, can also cause the web browser to run slowly or run out of memory, affecting the user experience.

To avoid this, I generally try to use one or several of the following techniques.

1. Restrict to a single origin or a single destination. This does require the user to first click on a location of interest before any flow can be seen:

From L to R, DataShine Commute, Understanding Scotland’s Places (USP) and DataShine Region Commute, the last one showing that, in some cases, this can still produce an overload of lines.

2. Only show flows above a threshold. This could be a simple minimum value threshold (e.g. 10 people), a set number of lines (e.g. 1000 largest flows) or dynamic value-based limit (e.g. only where flow is 1% of the origin population), the latter generally only working if a single origin is shown at a time:

From L to R, The Great British Bike To Work (with a simple flow-size threshold) and Understanding Scotland’s Places, which uses a dynamic origin-based theshold, shown here with the constrasting number of bidirectional flows visualised from a large city (centre) with those from a small town (right), each being selected in turn.

3. Minimise the overall number of possible origins/destinations. What you lose in detail you might gain in clarity and simplicity. DataShine Region Commute only shows flows between LAs, rather than the spatial detail of flows within them.

4. Restrict the geography. The Propensity to Cycle Tool (Lovelace R et al, 2017) shows the main flows (based on a threshold) on a county-by-county basis, with easy and clear prompts to allow the user to move to a neighbouring county if they wish.

5. Bend the lines. Tools, such as the Stanford Flow Map Layout tool or Gephi with the “Geo Layout” and curved lines, allow flow lines to be clustered or curved in a way that reduces clutter, while retaining geography. The first approach clumps pairs of flow lines together in a logical way, as soon as they approach each other. The second approach simply curves all the lines, on a clockwise basis, generally removing them from the central area unless that is their destination. See also this paper by Bernhard Jenny (Jenny B. et al, 2017) which details the benefits of curving lines and further cartographic modifications, and this paper by Stefan Hennemann (Hennemann S. et al, 2015) which outlines a sophisticated approach to grouping together flow lines, on a world-wide basis.

From L to R: Commutes into London from districts outside London, from the 2001 census, by Alastair Rae (Rae A., 2010) using the Stanford Flow Map Layout tool, and top destination for each origin tube station, based on Oyster card data, by Ed Manley (Manley E., 2014) using a particular Gephi flow layout.

6. Route the flow. Snap the lines to roads or other appropriate linear infrastructure, using shortest-path or sensible-path routing, and combining the segments of lines that meet together, either by increasing the width or adjusting the hue or translucency.

From L to R: The Propensity to Cycle Tool (Lovelace R et al, 2017) routed for shortest path, and journeys on the “Boris Bikes” bikeshare system in central London, routed with OSM data to the shortest cycle-friendly route. In both cases, journeys meeting along a segment cause the segment to widen proportionally.

7. Don’t use a simple geographical map. This map, created by Robert Radburn at City University (Radburn R, 2015) in Tableau, is a “small multiple” style map of car commutes between London boroughs, with a map of London being made up itself of miniature maps of London. Each inner map shows journeys originating from the highlighted borough to the other boroughs. These maps are then arranged in a map themselves. It takes a little getting used to but is an effective way to show all the flows at once, without any potentially overlapping lines.

8. Miss out the flow lines altogether. Here, a selected origin (in green) causes the destination circles to change in size and colour, depending on the flow to them. In this case, the flow is modelled commutes on the London Underground network – made clearer by the addition of the tube lines themselves on the second map – but just as a background augmentation rather than flow lines.

Dockless Bikeshare in London – oBike is Here

London has a new bikeshare system – and it’s appeared by surprise, overnight. oBike is a dockless bikeshare. The company is based in Singapore, where it runs a number of large dockless systems there and in various Chinese cities, Melbourne, Amsterdam and Zurich, it is also likely coming to Washington DC in the USA and to Berlin in Germany, based on some recent job postings.

And now they’ve shipped 29 lorry-loads of nearly 5000 bicycles to London, the number being revealed in a now-deleted tweet by a logistics company:

Just under 1500 have been released so far, initially being “seeded” in groups along the major roads in Tower Hamlets and Hammersmith & Fulham boroughs (400 in each), and more recently in Wandworth, Clapham, Kennington, Lewisham, Waterloo, Harrow* and Enfield*, with “organic” use moving the bikes out as far south as Kingston, and as far east as East Ham (plus possibly in the river near Erith…) There have been several hundred journeys already, with the great majority of bikes having been moved at least once from their initial deployment.

Other players in the space are MoBike (in Manchester), OfoBike (in Cambridge – N.B. website currently down) and YoBike (in Bristol). Another company, GetBike, claimed to have launched in London a few months ago but the bikes, to date, have not appeared. Possibly, they got mired in council discussions. MoBike is also launching a system in Ealing, west London, at the end of the month. All five companies are based in Asia, where mass cycle manufacture is cheap, which had led some cities there ending up with huge heaps of dockless bikeshare bikes, being piled up by desperate city councils trying to keep their pavements clear.

As the bike is the only physical presence on the street, there are no permanent structures for the system and so authorities are not always involved in the process, but have to pick up the pieces and clear the streets – leading some in the dock-based bikeshare establishment to term the systems as rogue bikeshares. The European Cyclists Federation have this week published this timely position paper, where they term the systems slightly more politely as “unlicenced bikeshare” and suggest a potential framework to make the concept work in a European urban context. Whether the operators take notice of course is another matter…

Meanwhile, oBike’s rollout continues. In the map below, red dots with yellow borders show the most recently organically moved bikes (i.e. areas of red/yellow = popular use) while the blue dots with turquoise borders show ones which have not moved since their initial deployment. The other bikes (which someone has moved, but not recently) are shown with purple dots. The map is just a snapshot, and is manually created by myself, so I may have missed some bikes (but I think I’ve got almost all of them):

So far, most of the rollout has been to areas already served by bikeshare – the Boris Bikes (aka Santander Cycles). The real value add for London will be when Zones 3-6 (i.e. non-tourist, non-hipster “real London”) get the bikeshare. After 7 years of the Boris Bikes and no sign of them extending outwards, it’s about time the rest of us got the value of bikeshare too, particularly as our alternative options are more limited.

What is it?

Dockless bikeshare is different from the so-called “third generation” dock-based systems like London’s existing Santander Bicycles or “Boris Bikes”. It does away with docking stations and credit card terminals for charging and storing the bikes and administering the access, instead the bikes themselves have locks which contain a solar panel GPS receiver and SIM card for broadcasting their location, and are controlled by an app on your smartphone. It massively cuts down on the costs of the system because no docking stations are needed. London’s docking stations are very expensive as they have to go through the planning process, and also need to be wired up for power. There are also fewer staff needed – oBike do not employ drivers to redistribute the bikes, and also don’t have an established call-centre. Payments are handled entirely through the app. Maintenance teams are also, I suspect, likely to be minimal on the ground.

The bikes themselves are similar in size to the Boris Bikes, but come with solid rubber tyres (so no punctures). They feel around the same weight. The bikes only have only one gear, set quite low, so you can’t get up much speed. The bikes don’t feel heavier than a Boris Bike. They have the same, chunky “tank” feel to them and feel sturdy – the livery being bright yellow helps with visibility on the streets, which is a bonus.

Trying it Out

I took an oBike out for a spin yesterday afternoon. I noticed a pair parked (orange pins) close to the Facebook office at Euston Square – maybe some Facebookers trying out the latest thing?

On arrival, I was a little surprised to see the bikes were parked on the other side of the road (small blue pin). Still, my own phone’s GPS was saying I was on the other side of a large building (blue dot)…

The process of getting the bike was straightforward – I had already paid the £29 refundable deposit (£49 from August) by entering my card details into the app on my phone, so it was just a case of clicking “Unlock” and the scanning the QR code on the bike’s stem. Around 10 seconds later (with communication through your phone’s Bluetooth or through the SIM card on the lock – I’m not sure) the lock on the bike clicked open and the app’s timer started. Neat! The whole signup process was far more streamlined than with the Boris Bikes, where you have to go to a docking station, use the terminal there, page through tens of screens of information and put in your credit card at least twice. Here, you can be on board in less than a minute, with subsequent hires even quicker.

My bike already had its seat raised to the highest position (or higher still, as there was some brown scuffing there) so no adjustments needed. I headed across Euston Circus and down to the British Museum. Unfortunately, my bike had a distinct squeak every time the back wheel rotated, although squeezing the brake stopped it for a few seconds. The brakes themselves are excellent (perhaps I noticed this particularly as my own bike brakes are poor) and everything seemed OK. The bike appeared in good condition, no rubbish had collected in the basket. The handlebars are very wide, so I couldn’t squeeze through the usual gaps between cars and buses. I didn’t find the handlebars very grippy – they are plastic rather than rubber, and my left hand slipped off at one point (I was juggling a mobile phone at the time). In all, not the fastest cycle but perfect fine for utility riding and definitely still faster than walking or getting the bus.

There were various Boris Bikers around, I must have passed at least 10 in my 15 minute ride, but no other oBikes – yet! At the end of my journey I dropped the bike beside a bike rack beside Euston Square station. It wasn’t immediately obvious how to end the journey – you don’t press anything in the app, instead you pull the lock switch manually back across the back wheel, until you hear a reassuring click. A few seconds later, as long as you have Bluetooth switch on, on your phone, then the app beeps and confirms the journey as complete.

On finishing, the app presents an attractive display showing your start and finish, time, and a “route”, however the route is simple the Google Maps route for bicycles rather than the actual journey taken. The distance also bears no correlation to either the Google Maps “shortest path” route on the map, or the actual distance taken, which is very odd. For the finish location itself, the GPS had once again not given a particularly accurate result, and it looked like I’d cycled the bike straight into the A&E department at University College Hospital. Only 100m or so off again, but not ideal for discovery:

I tried another bike out a bit later. This didn’t have a squeak, however the basket was tilted slightly to one side – not a biggie but still a bit worrying that quirks like this are appearing so soon into the deployment. The bike coped just fine with the rough surface on the River Lea towpath, including over several speedbumps. However, on a return journey, the unlocking process proved to be rather fraught. The QR code was read fine by my phone, but the communication to the lock was not working well, and it kept timing out. Only after around 6 attempts, including moving the bike around. The area we were in had quite poor mobile reception so this may be part of the problem. Still, the few minutes delay to the journey was frustrating. However, once we were moving, the bike itself performed well.

Opportunities

I really like the app, and the payment structure is excellent – 50p flat rate per 30 minutes represents much better value than the £2/day for 30-minute-max journeys on the Boris Bikes. I really didn’t like that, before oBike, it was cheaper to get a bus than a bicycle in London. The reward system is a great idea, it always made sense to incentivise riders to do the tasks of the operator, and the lack of redistribution is another good thing – I always thought it was a huge waste of time redistributing bicycles to one place, only to redistribute them back later.

The fact that, rather being constrained to docks, the allowed operating area is the whole of London, is great. Already, one bike has ended up at Heathrow in the far west of London:

The lack of docks mean that the users set the area of coverage. Finally, Hackney and Haringey, Lewisham and Rotherhithe, have the bikeshare that I am sure would always have been popular there.

I do also like the name – oBike (five letters, two syllables) rolls off the tongue a lot more easily than Barclays Cycle Hire or Santander Cycles.

Challenges

I’m not totally convinced that oBike will survive long-term – despite assertions to the contrary by some operators of these dockless bikeshares, the bikes will need maintenance due to the rough weather, roads and people in London. Whether they get any will be interesting to see. The bikes I tried out have only been on the streets for four days, and for the first one I tried have picked up a loud squeak so quickly, and the second one to have a wonky basket, is not great. The bikes are also a little too small for the British frame – having said that I am 6′ and I got around OK on one, but with the seat-post extended to its absolute maximum. There have been some cases of the seat-posts easily coming right off when extended further.

Also – some people will inevitably be hard on the bikes. They are not that indestructible, and some people will see them as a cheap way of getting a bike. Some will end up in the Thames. Councils will end up confiscating some, as Hammersmith & Fulham has already threatened to do. Not getting the council involved is brave – they may have looked at the Cambridge example where the council insisted that another operator reduce its launch from 500 bikes to 20 – there are obvious advantages with not having to deal with 33 separate councils in London (+ the City + TfL and the GLA) and just sticking the bikes out there – but oBike could have made life easier for themselves by distributing them more discretely, to avoid the ire of grumpy councils and pedestrians – placing one or two bikes together, at the most, ad on side roads rather than main roads, beside existing cycle parking racks, rather than obstructing pavements, and focusing on Zones 3-6 first (even if that results in a slower initial takeup). And a commitment to maintenance or organised disposal would also be good – at the moment no one knows what will happen to the bikes after they start to wear out. The scenes of “bicycle graveyards” and huge heaps of brightly coloured bicycles, in the cities of the far east that are full of dockless bikeshares, are worrying.

I hope that oBike is a success, and the bicycles survive grumpy councils, the kids who just want a free bike, and the weather. If it provides an incentive to give the Boris Bikes a kick up the backside (50p per 30 minutes flat rate and all-London low density coverage please!) then that on its own would be a result. Providing a bikeshare out into London’s Zone 3 and further is a real winner for shared mobility options outside London’s already well connected central core.

* These have since been removed, I understand, following discussions with the councils there. The company however did not switch off the GPS trackers on the removed bikes, and so have revealed the location of their depot, at Rainham on the very edge of east London:

Map background Copyright HERE Maps. Top photo Copyright JC, bottom photo Copyright SR.

Broadband Speed in the UK

Recently published on CDRC Maps is a new a map of Broadband Speed in the UK. This is the average download speed for residential properties, right across the UK. It’s based on data annually released by the national regulator, OFCOM (I’m using the most recent dataset, from 2016). I’m using a Purple-White-Green colour ramp, where purples indicate areas with very slow speeds, white tends towards the national median and dark greens show areas of very fast connection – potentially homes using the new “ultrafast” connections available in some areas.

It should be noted that this is based on the actual average download speed based on the deal people have signed up for, not the maximum attainable download speed (either theoretical or actual) in an area. I hypothesise below that, in cities, this may be due to consumer inertia as much as infrastructure gaps – while in rural areas it is more likely the latter. I’m also only mapping residential speeds, so ignore the map shades on commercial buildings – the values there refer to nearby residential, and also broadband through high-speed mobile networks rather than “fixed line” is also excluded.

Urban/rural divide

As would be expected with infrastructure costs, the economics of putting in fibre connections, and increased distances to the nearest telephone exchanges, broadband speeds still suffer in the countryside, with the Llandrindod Wells (LD) postal area in rural central Wales, having the slowest average broadband connection of 14.9Mbit/s. Looking at specific postal outcodes, PA70, on the also extremely rural island of Mull in western Scotland, has an average speed of just 1.1Mbit/s.

Why do city centres show up as slow?

Of note, as well as this urban/rural divide, the very centre of cities often show slower speeds than the suburbs. This is possibly because of the difficulty of installing the needed infrastructure under narrow, busy streets and through old, often historic buildings. By contrast, newer housing developments, normally on the edge of cities may come with broadband infra designed in to the plans. The fastest postal region is OX, the Oxford postal area, perhaps reflecting the large technologically literate population (thanks to the universities and various science parks in the area). The fastest postal outcode in the country, however, is N1C, the new area behind King’s Cross. This is a central city area, but one which has essentially been built from scratch in the last few years, rather than needing broadband retrofitted into it. Another new area however, E20 (the Olympic Park) appears in the London bottom 10.

An alternative argument is that it may be that city centres got the “first wave” of broadband capabilities, many years ago, and people switched then – and consumer inertia means that they are less likely to switch to faster broadband offerings that are now available to them. In central London, the Rotherhithe area shows up as having particularly slow broadband speeds being used. This area is quite distinct to just about every other central London area, having become a residential area in the 1980s and 1990s. It is also rather isolated geographically. However, the lowest speeds of all in London are found, rather surprisingly, in and around the few residential areas of the City of London. The Barbican Estate has few keen users of ultra-fast broadband. It may be available to them, but the elderly population here may just not want it.

A short note on methodology: This is an area average (by output area – 150 properties) of postcode averages of individual connections. I’ve excluded postcodes with no residential broadband connections, as these are still recorded in the source data but with a speed of 0. By using OAs rather than individual postcodes, the data is slightly smoothed, i.e. less noisy, so trends can be seen easily across areas, even though individual properties (or indeed whole postcodes) may be connecting at a faster speed than what appears in the map in that place. In short – the map is of the overall picture, not individual addresses.

You can download the data, and see the Top/bottom 10 postal area stats, on the CDRC Data page for the dataset, or explore the data on the interactive map.

Top: A river divides them – broadband average download speed in west Glasgow. Above: Towns north and south of the Firth of Clyde. Below: Variations in south London. All maps based on data which is Crown Copyright OS and OFCOM.