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House of Commons Hansard
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Dockless Bicycles (Regulation)
24 July 2019
Volume 663

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to give powers to local authorities to regulate dockless bicycle-sharing schemes; and for connected purposes.

The sudden emergence of dockless bike schemes over the last few years has been a tale for our times—a tale of the power of tech to facilitate sharing, and of the massive and cheap production of bikes in China. It has led to new opportunities for travel in our cities, but also the prospect of people waking up to find their streets littered with bikes, with no obvious way of dealing with the issue.

I have been urging the Government to act on this for years, because my city of Cambridge was early to experience the phenomenon. Micro-mobility is a potentially exciting opportunity, and data-driven services are set to change the way we travel, but we cannot let the companies who provide these services litter our towns and cities, because, as ever, it falls to our local councils to pick up the mess—and too often the bill. In London in just the last few weeks, London councils have used byelaws to tackle the problem in the absence of help and support from this place; that help and support is the purpose of this Bill.

Let me start with the good examples—there are some—because proper regulation will foster positive innovation. For instance, healthy living can be championed; I am told that in Cardiff, the bike-share service provider nextbike is working with Cardiff Council and local health bodies to enable GPs to prescribe to patients unlimited free 30-minute hires of their 650 bikes. Cardiff Council has stated that it is

“fortunate and proud to offer this opportunity”.

Other examples of initiatives include Bikeshare4all, which tackles digital exclusion and helps those without smartphones or bank accounts to access these schemes.

Dockless bicycle-sharing schemes are just part of a host of new innovations that look set to change the way we travel locally, with on-demand services linked up by tech, such as electric scooters and car-pooling apps. I shall briefly set out the current problems and then describe the ways in which the Bill and regulation could mitigate them, but first, in passing, I should point out that the concerns about electric scooters, made very real by the tragic death of Emily Hartridge, show why we need a Department for Transport that responds much more swiftly to changing circumstances. As a member of the Transport Committee, I see all too often that under this Administration, it really is the Department not for transport but for failing to keep up. I do not blame the Department; I am afraid the fault lies in lack of leadership.

The striking pictures of the dockless bike graveyards around the world that we saw in the newspapers a few years ago show how quickly the schemes can come and go. That was certainly felt keenly in Cambridge, and on an even larger scale in cities such as Sheffield, Norwich, Oxford and London. Ofo put some 2,000 bikes into Sheffield last year, causing much initial excitement among residents, but six months later they had all been removed.

In Cambridge, I had direct experience of Ofo, which was one of the first movers. Frankly, at the beginning it was very hard to find who to speak to—the bikes had turned up but it was unclear who was running the scheme—and the company’s initial relationship with the council was strained. After management changes, Ofo did engage knowledgeable local people—I visited its premises—and for a while the service seemed sustainable and effective. Sadly, Ofo began to withdraw operations from some areas of the city that it found problematic. I remember seeing an Ofo bike parked on top of a bus shelter in King’s Hedges Road. Suddenly, another operator, Mobike, appeared, adding to the confusion—and to the clutter. Just as suddenly, Ofo was gone, although not all the bikes were gone; some were still around, in various states of disrepair, and in some cases were still being used, but all too often they had been seized and broken by a small number of Cambridge youngsters who were up to no good. Frankly, it has not been a happy experience overall.

Not only do events such as those I have described prevent bike-share schemes from being a real transport solution that people can rely on, but the ending of schemes really disadvantages those who changed their routines to take advantage of the service and made the modal shift that so many in this place are keen to encourage. What message does it send when we exhort people to ditch their car and switch to public transport and bikes, but they then find the service withdrawn just a few months later?

What should be done? Franchising, with local authorities agreeing a timeframe for service provision, could rectify the situation and allow users certainty when they make decisions about their transport options. Currently, a provider can set up a scheme without permission from, or even communication with, the local authority. Franchising would also allow oversight and local authority influence over prices, so that they cannot be hiked overnight, as has unfortunately happened in some parts of the country.

As I have mentioned, bike-share schemes can organise their services to prioritise the most profitable areas and exclude deprived postcodes. I have heard stories that in Manchester one scheme continued to narrow its operational area to squeeze out the highest revenue possible. Regulation would mean that councils could agree the areas that the bikes would serve, making sure they are available in all parts of the city that need the service, not simply the most lucrative. Sustainable transport solutions cannot be a postcode lottery.

Beyond reliability and scope, bike-share companies can also swamp areas with their bikes without the permission of local authorities. Mobike put 1,300 bikes into London in July 2017, with Wandsworth Council flooded by hundreds of them without warning. Not only can this be a nuisance for local authorities to manage, but it can increase the likelihood of bikes being left in unsafe places. I was contacted by Dr Amy Kavanagh, who is visually impaired and uses a white cane. She says:

“these bikes have become a constant hazard. There are at least 5 schemes now in operation in my area, and on my daily commute I am constantly forced to navigate around them, which is disorientating, difficult & occasionally painful. The bikes are abandoned all over the pavements, blocking access to tactile pavements at pedestrian crossings and creating a general nuisance for blind pedestrians”.

The same issue crops up for wheelchair users and for those with pushchairs. Dr Kavanagh asked me to

“implore the government to properly regulate these schemes, and penalise any found creating hazards by blocking access to tactile paving at pedestrian crossings.”

We must designate where, or at least how, the bicycles can be parked, perhaps in prescribed zones or at least guided by a proper code of practice. I pay tribute to the excellent work done by Cambridge City Council to develop such a code and to Transport for London for specifying the space required on pavements to get around any abandoned bikes. The problem is not just about where bikes are parked; there is no official monitoring or safety checks on the quality and maintenance of bike-share bikes, which must raise concerns about their safety.

As the chair of the all-party group on data analytics, I note that there is no requirement for bike-share companies to use the data they collect for public good. Bike-share companies collect considerable amounts of data on user journeys. If local authorities had access to anonymised data that showed trends, that could be helpful when they design active travel infrastructure improvements. Frankly, if aggregated data is being sold for profit, as many of us suspect it is, that fact should be transparent to users. People should know what is happening to data on them. At a minimum, local authorities should be able to use the data for public good.

To summarise, the Bill would regulate the prices that can be charged to users and the area covered by the service; the number and make-up of bicycle fleets; the sharing of location data, to allow oversight of fleets and distribution and to speed up the reporting of any bicycles left in inappropriate places; safety and monitoring; and where bicycles can be left and the relationship with any locally agreed code of practice. The Minister will know that I have been pressing the Department on this issue for some time. As we sit in this Chamber, the outgoing Prime Minister has been driven to the palace. Who knows: the next Prime Minister might leap aboard the nearest dockless bike and wing his way smoothly forward—or not, as the case may be. I hope the Minister has heard the details of my Bill, has got the point and will act swiftly. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Daniel Zeichner, Ruth Cadbury, Andrew Selous, Andy Slaughter, Huw Merriman, Kerry McCarthy, Alex Sobel and Alison Thewliss present the Bill.

Daniel Zeichner accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 431).