In the first instalment of our mutli-part feature that looks into how micromobility operators can co-exist within the ecosystem of a city authority, we saw things from the operator’s perspective. In the second part, the City of Utrecht’s senior policy advisor, Herbert Tiemens, explains how his city structured its partnership with bike sharing firm TIER.
Intertraffic: When a micromobility operator applies for a licence or approaches your city with a proposal for a shared-bike trial, what are you looking for from that proposal from the city’s perspective? What boxes need to be ticked?
Herbert Tiemens (HT): The situation in the Netherlands might be a bit different from other cities and countries in that we already had a bike rental system, although it was station-based, so you always had to return to the main station. That was really a good market, people were using it a lot and are using it still a lot. We have over 1000 bikes a day that are used on the egress side of a train trip. But on the other hand, we saw 10 years ago that an additional shared bike system could be advantageous as well. That's the system that's used by the Dutch Railways and it really works well as an egress part of the trip.
Intertraffic: How did you go about setting up the service in Utrecht? What factors did you take into consideration?
HT: We didn't particularly want to put money in to it, so we looked at what was going on in Paris – this was 2017. At this point several companies came to us and they wanted to put shared bikes in the streets. We decided to wait a moment, because we didn't want to litter the street with poor quality bikes. What we did want was good quality bicycles, because otherwise people won't use them. The other thing to consider was that Utrecht has many narrow streets that are already populated with a lot of bikes, but we liked the idea of a scheme where customers can leave the bikes at different spots around the city so we decided to try it.
Intertraffic: In part one of the operator’s view was that in terms of regulation micromobility service providers have to ‘jump through a number of hoops’ before a citywide trial can be given the green light. What regulatory hoops were being referred to, from the city’s perspective? What do the operators have to do to convince you that their scheme is right for your city?
HT: Firstly, they have to convince us that the quality of the bikes is good, but we also want to know how they will respond to complaints from the public, how they will organise everything, how they will share the data about availability of bicycles. That's also something that we set on a national scale. In the Netherlands, we want to have this data available for our mobility apps.
Intertraffic: Shared micromobility schemes are dogged by images of abandoned, unreturned bikes littering the pavements. How important is it to have a practical return policy in place? Many customers who rent a bike are aiming to cycle from A to B and don’t particularly want to have to go back to A to return the bike.
HT: We now have a geofenced system - a drop-off point on the corner of the street, where you can leave your bike. We have carefully selected these locations to minimise the amount of complaints we receive from the public. These places are clearly visible and they are not obstructive. I’d say that there are benefits to not being a capital city in that we aren’t major political players. Wanting to implement an idea like this was already within our strategy and we are able to do it.
Intertraffic: There appears to be two approaches to running a shared micromobility scheme in a city. One very tightly structured and managed, the other… less so, favouring a more open, loose approach. On which side of that particular coin would you find Utrecht?
HT: We favour the managed approach with the operator we work with, which is TIER. We have a monthly conversation with them to see how to improve the system. Are there places that are underserved? Which locations are running well? What other problems do we have? What are the customers saying? We take their demands for a better-run service seriously but in return they take us seriously, so there’s a mutual benefit.
Intertraffic: It’s fair to assume that many people who rent bikes are visiting the city and would likely to be riding an unfamiliar bike in potentially unfamiliar city and yet they are expected to have to fight for road space with trucks and buses and cars. How important is it, therefore, for a city to be able to give cyclists some devoted road space in the form of a ‘micromobility network’?
HT: I think it's essential, because I remember when I was in London in 2014 and I somehow survived cycling around Trafalgar Square, largely thanks to a very patient bus driver. It has to be safe. People are vulnerable, especially those that are not used to a foreign city.
I think it's really crucial for operators and cities to not be afraid of the other party and have a good understanding of the mutual gains, and what also are the interests of the different parties. For Utrecht it was important that we have a clean space that is accessible for everyone. On the other hand, we understand that an operator wants to make a profit. So it has to go hand in hand. Good collaboration is possible – you just need to have a good conversation with each other. We saw what happened in other Dutch cities where oversees operators came and basically threw a lot of bikes into the streets. That doesn't work as it imposes restrictions and then we have resistance from the public and from politicians. That’s game over.
Intertraffic: Would you have been prepared to work with multiple operators had that proved workable – e-scooters in particular?
HT: Multiple operators? Absolutely, but we actually invited moped providers as e-scooters are not allowed on our streets by the Dutch regulator for road vehicles. They have been banned in Paris due to safety concerns, but we see them as potentially replacing a lot of trips that are now made by bike and on foot in the Netherlands. If we had e-scooters on our streets it would shift the narrative from active mobility, as we working towards now, in favour of inactive mobility. That defeats the object and comes with obvious health disadvantages, too.