By Richard Peace
The financial state of Madrid’s public hire electric bike scheme appear to be reaching a crisis point and has become a political battleground as plans for the scheme’s expansion appear to be stalled.
In late 2015 the Bonopark, the company running the scheme on behalf of Madrid City Hall, issued a request for 3.6 million Euros in order to avoid bankruptcy.
It certainly appears that Bonopark has been struggling to meet its contractual obligations to City Hall.
In September 2015 it bought in an extra 1,000 bikes but was still unable to keep the number in service it was contractually required to do so.
Bonopark has supplied electric bicycles for a similar scheme in the northern Spanish city of San Sebastian since 2013.
Reports say Madrid’s City Hall has spent 535,000 Euros on the scheme since it began around 20 months ago and around 470 out of original 1580 bikes, located at the 123 stations (known officially as TOTEMs) throughout 8 of the capital’s 21 districts, have been lost or stolen.
In April 2015 a rollout of a further 42 TOTEMs began. The city’s short term goal was to expand the scheme to 2,000 bikes and the long term one to have some 4,000 by 2026.
The current City Hall administration say they wish to ‘protect’ the very popular system and describe the contract signed with Bonopark by a previous administration as a ‘horror’.
There have been a series of measures introduced to combat theft, including police access to the BiciMAD database (and according to Spanish newspaper ABC some plainclothes policemen on guard) and Bonopark are said to be testing a GPS tracking system for the bikes.
Since the end of last year the political debate about BiciMAD has become increasingly rancorous and split along party political lines. Those wanting the expansion to go ahead, despite current difficulties, say that the system still represents a ‘high return for locals in terms of quality if life and air quality’ and that continued initial subsidy is a tiny fraction of the city hall’s current annual 1,200 million euros.
Some parties have suggested advertising as a new revenue stream but this was not allowed for in the original contract and there has also been talk of the Madrid government assuming direct responsibility for the scheme if the situation with Bonopark cannot be rescued.
Over the 10 years of concession, Bonopark hoped to receive around 23 million euros for an expenditure of around 12 million.
How Does it Work?
BiciMAD works in a similar way to its non-electric cousins in London and Paris. The bikes are kept securely moored at docking stations until a subscriber with a card comes along and uses it to unlock a bike.
Annual membership is 25 euros (or 15 euros to those with train or bus passes). Time is then charged at 50 cents for the first half hour rising to 4 euros per hour after the first two hours.
For occasional users such as tourists, rides up to an hour cost between 2 and 4 euros.
Lesson from Paris and London
This all begs the question is BiciMAD fundamentally flawed or just experiencing teething problems in the same way that other non-electric schemes first experienced before going on to becoming firmly accepted as part of their cityscapes?
When launched in June 2014 there was an initial rush of more than 1000 subscribers who wanted to use BiciMAD. There are now more than 50,000 subscribers which compares favourably with Paris’s Vlib (currently 225,000 subscribers)
Indeed, Vlib faced many of the same obstacles as BiciMAD in its first year; complaints the bikes were too heavy (reportedly 22kg, not too bad for an electric bikes), theft and damage and a maintenance bill above what was estimated.
But the scheme is now some eight years old and appears to have gone from strength to strength. Although undoubtedly expensive to run and maintain (one newspaper reported it costs each Vlib costs 3,000 euros per year for to run and maintain) problems have been resolved.
JCDecaux, the company that manages Vlib, says the scheme has maintained ‘budgetary balance’ since 2011. The rise of Vlib has also coincided with more private bike trips in the capital (something that has happened in Madrid too subsequent to BiciMADs introduction) and the introduction of 41% more bike lanes in Paris.
London’s scheme has been rolled out from 5,000 to 8,000 bikes with more forecast for 2016. One study showed cyclists using the scheme are three times less likely to be injured per trip than cyclists in London as a whole, possibly due to motorists giving cycle hire users more road space than they do other cyclists.
And a recent customer research showed that 49 per cent of Cycle Hire members said the scheme has prompted them to start cycling in London.
So perhaps there is a lesson for Madrid here; despite widespread initial scepticism, both the Paris and London schemes were developed and evolved into success. Indeed, rather than reducing funding after early difficulties, both schemes expanded further out from their city centres.
Thanks to Richard Peace for this report.
Richard Peace is an experienced cycle journalist whose work and range of cycle publications can be found at richardpeacecycling.com
His company’s book on electric bicycles is available here.
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