Friday, May 20, 2011

Bike sharing for Albania

In the field of bike sharing, Budapest has been beaten to the punch by an unlikely rival: Tirana, Albania.

Although Tirana is capital to one of the poorest countries in Europe and doesn't have near the cycling levels as Budapest, a local NGO found the courage to launch an impressive, low-tech bike sharing system in the downtown area.

Dubbed Ecovolis (Albanian for "Ecobike"), the system launched March 23 with four stations with 10 bikes each. They've already sold 2,000 subscriptions and have rented bikes out to many more customers on a per-trip basis.

The public enthusiasm has exceeded the best expectations of the group behind the scheme: the Social Alternatives Incentive Programme (PASS). It's also stirred interest among potential corporate donors, who had earlier raised their eyebrows at the idea. “Before starting the project, it was very difficult for us to persuade companies to sponsor the project,” said PASS's communications manager Jola Foto. “Now the companies are interested and trying to negotiate with us to sponsor the project.”

The response has been so promising, PASS already plans to open an additional two stations in Tirana and even hopes to expand Ecovolis to neighbouring communities.

Although the system is admittedly small for a city of 600,000 people, Ecovolis has been a feat of ingenuity and perseverance given the circumstances. In terms of infrastructure, Tirana has only a few recreational paths on the margins of city green areas, and also a few experimental shared bus/bike lanes. There is simply no culture of transport cycling in the city, and the modal share -- if it were to be measured -- is assumed to be well under 1 percent.

In a sense, introducing bike sharing to Tirana is tantamount to introducing cycling to Tirana. Full stop. Organisers had to be realistic about the start-up budget, while at the same time, make a big splash and stimulate interest in a novel transport concept. And because PASS's core mission is creating opportunities for needy citizens, they wanted the programme to have a strong social element.

So PASS rolled out Ecovolis as one element of a broader programme called Tirana Community Bicycle. Part of its activities are giving away bicycles to children of needy families and part is offering necessary staff positions to marginalised citizens. The programme also includes Sunday cycling lessons and various cycling activities for youth.

In regard to the bike-sharing scheme, it had to be low-tech. A swipe-card activated system of the type operating in London, Paris, Barcelona (and soon in Budapest) would have been far too expensive for Tirana. And aside from the cost, swipe cards just aren't used much in Albania.

But this was fine. PASS fashioned Ecovolis as a social business: Each docking station is staffed by two attendants at all times. The necessary staffing not only creates jobs (two shifts per day = four jobs per station), it also puts a human face on the service. The attendants can explain and promote bike sharing while raising awareness of utility cycling in a brand-new market.

Key to getting the project off the ground was the support of Tirana City Hall and a cash donation of USD 24,000 from the George Soros-funded Open Society Foundation Albania (OSFA). Even more significant was a donation of 450 used bikes from the US-based Pedal for Progress organisation.

One difficulty has been the higher than expected maintenance needs. Although this is a typical challenge for bike-sharing systems, it may be hitting Ecovolis especially hard due to the inexperience of users and the somewhat delicate quality of the standard-issue bicycles. During the initial weeks of the project, 30 of the scheme’s 40 bicycles required repairs on any given day. PASS hopes to address this by purchasing sturdier, new bikes as the system is expanded. It was also hoped that as the scheme’s customers get used to the system, they'll learn to use the bikes without causing damages.

Despite teething problems, Ecovolis is moving ahead. Plans include creating a database of users and members to get a better handle on Ecovolis's market (half of subscribers are women) and to start giving service discounts to Ecovolis customers. Meanwhile, according to Foto, PASS is in talks with the mayors of Durres, Pogradec and Vlora for possible franchises.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Happy Days

Not even a month has passed since the "last" Critical Mass, and they've already announced the reunion tour.

To be fair, the occasion isn't a proper Critical Mass, but rather a one-off celebration of a welcome addition to Budapest's cycling network: the new bi-directional bike lanes on the kiskörút (Little Ring Road). The whole reconfiguration of this busy thoroughfare looks to be a big improvement for downtown, and the bike lanes -- one on each side of the street next to the curbs -- were included in the plans thanks to vigorous lobbying by the local cycling movement.

Now there are bike lanes on both sides of the kiskörút running from the Szabadság Bridge all the way to Déak tér. I can't recall exactly how much car parking this path has displaced, but it's quite a few spaces, and that fact alone makes this bit of infrastructure ground-breaking by Budapest standards.

Compare that to the bike path that runs north from there down Bajcsy-Zsilinszky to Alkotmány utca. It's on one side of the street only, making it inconvenient for northbound travellers. And the designers, rather than taking away a centimetre of space from this rather capacious urban motorway, decided instead to run it down the the sidewalk -- taking space from pedestrians. It was a wasted opportunity for sustainable mobility, but hopefully, the more enlightened approach on the kiskörút will set an example that future traffic planners will follow.

Now that the kiskörút paths have actually been completed -- and in a fashion conforming to the promised design -- the guys at Hajtas Pajtas bike couriers want to celebrate and give due credit to the city leaders, planners and contractors who brought it to fruition.

The demonstration, dubbed "Happy Mass," will happen Tuesday, May 24. Participants are asked to come down to Károly körút and mass on both sides of the Madach tér crosswalk between 5:45 and 6 p.m. You're supposed to line up along with bike paths along the sidewalks, and then at 6 p.m. there will be a traditional bike lift. After that, for 45 minutes cyclists will ride up and down the new bike paths, with no explicit instructions on how and when to turn and cross the street to double back the other way. The idea is just to occupy the path for awhile, much as last fall's Critical Mass was about occupying the nagykörút.

At 6:45 p.m. Hajtas Pajtas head Gábor Kürti will lead a public discussion about the path and cycling matters in the small auditorium of the Merlin Theatre.