Friday, March 25, 2011

Public bike rental services bloom in Seoul and around

It's high time we had an update about Seoul's public bicycle rental program (see "Seoul Velib'", back in 2008) : it's definitely getting more serious and official, with a really "Velib'-like" look and feel, a website (bikeseoul.com), a mobile app, and 43 stations in operation.

The concept looks very much like the original one*, which was meant to allow as many citizens as possible to ride bikes across the city, even if they can't afford one :
- you pay a very cheap subscription for a day, a week, or a year (in Paris: respectively EUR 1, 5, and 29), but Seoul also proposes 1 month and 6 month solutions (respectively KRW 1,000, 3,000, 5,000, 15,000, and 30,000).
- you're not renting a specific bike, but you have an unlimited access to special bikes which you have to pick up and drop at any of the special stations within the program
- you're not charged anything if you use it less than 30 mn each time, but you pay at least KRW 1,000 per hour beyond that point
- if you need a bike for more than 30 mn and don't want to pay, you can make a stop or change bikes at any station to get another 30 mn free
- the 24/7/365 service is fully automated with online kiosks and seamless cards
- bonus: the bicycles are much smarter and lighter than in Paris (where theft and hooliganism are unfortunately more frequent, thus the bulky shapes and the absence of screen on the vehicles), and location based services will be available.

With this concept, coverage (number of stations across the city) and availability (number of places per station) are the key factors of success. Paris proposed a very aggressive scenario for Velib's inauguration in July 2007 : 750 stations and 7500 bikes for a 105 sq km city with 300 subway stations (and the 1,000th Velib' station was inaugurated by the end of that same year !).

But Seoul is six times bigger than Paris, and even if new bikes lanes are added at a very interesting pace**, neighboroods are much less seamlessly connected (high mountains, bike-unfriendly streets, Hangang much wider than the Seine river...) : one couldn't expect the same service from day one, and since 2007 I've been thinking over the Seoul case (which probably will be solved by the same company***).

I guess the best way to proceed would be step by step, starting with major bike hubs in different districts, and to progressively connect star-shaped islands / sub-networks.

Maybe that's the way Seoul sees it. With only 43 stations clustered around Sangam and Yeouido, this programm looks less like a full launch than a trial in two areas not too remote from each other, and not too far from the Hangang riversides, Seoul's biggest network of bicycle lanes.

Another clue is the quasi absence of branding for the operation : I cannot imagine Seoul Metropolitan Government zapping this essential element of the mix, or sticking to this dull, logoless "공공 자전거" ("gonggong jajeongeo" or "Seoul City Public Bicyle")...

... Or worse: recycling Haechi, already at work for everything bikish at the municipal level - see exhibit A, from the site
bike.seoul.go.kr (not to be confused with the aforementioned bikeseoul.com, or even seoulbike.com, a website for the seoul bicycle show / exhibition)...

I'm quite sure we'll see an acceleration by the end of this year, and maybe even a decent brand.

Meanwhile, you can already test the system, or other municipally sponsored bicycle rental programs in Korea, like NUBIJA in Changwon (
nubija.changwon.go.kr), or FIFTEEN in Goyang (very well advertized even on major highways with the "Let's FIFTEEN!" campaign, and an iPhone app).

Seoul Village 2011

* Paris Velib', or rather its model: Velo'V (in Lyons, also in France).
** now this is starting to look like a citywide network :
*** since JCDecaux (the world leader in bike sharing with Cyclocity) operates in both capitals, I presume the company is also behind this new project.

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