How effective has public bike sharing been in Chennai?

Launched nearly four years ago, public bike-sharing system in Chennai is yet to pick up. Users, experts share challenges and solutions.

Kalyani, a fruit vendor in Anna Nagar, had often seen the rows of cycles stationed by the side of the road, which people would come, unlock and ride away on. She had heard that this was a public bike sharing facility available to citizens and was eager to try it out. It really would help her in her commute. But sadly, she had little help in figuring out how the whole system worked.

“I was interested in trying it out,” she says, “but there were no instructions in Tamil at the spots (docking stations) on how to access these bikes. In fact, I came to know it was open to the public only after I asked someone who was using it.” Kalyani’s experience highlights one of the key reasons that public bike sharing in Chennai is yet to achieve its full potential.

Public bike-sharing system was introduced in Chennai in February 2019 with the launch of 250 cycles by SmartBike. The programme was adopted as part of the Chennai Smart City mission with an aim to curb the ill effects of rising personal vehicle numbers and enable last-mile connectivity with public transport.

The SmartBike sharing system works on the basis of an app that must be downloaded on the rider’s smartphone. The bikes are placed in docking stations across various locations. Once the user enters their personal information and payment details, the app provides a unique QR code to be scanned for the bikes to be unlocked. If the bike is to be parked during the course of the ride it must then be locked manually. On completion of the ride, the bike must be returned to a docking station. 

Read more: Where and how can you ride a ‘smart bike’ in Chennai?

Since the time of launch, inclusivity (only smartphone users could access the Smart Bikes) and the lack of vernacular language in the app (the app functions only in English) have been pointed out as major drawbacks of the system.

While the ridership is yet to pick up even after nearly four years of launch, the drawbacks are yet to be addressed as well. However, the service providers have their own challenges at the ground level.

Has public bike-sharing served the purpose?

K Prabhu, one of the Smart Bike users, says that one of the major challenges that he faces is the need for smartphones to access the bikes. “There have been times when my mobile phone was out of charge or the network was poor. There are times when glitches in the app itself pose challenges in locking and unlocking the cycles or getting the payment done. It is much easier to board a share auto than going through the entire process on the app,” he says.

Initially, payments were allowed only through credit and debit cards. “It is a welcome move that all payment gateways have been opened now. However, having an option to physically pay and rent the cycles would attract more riders,” says Prabhu.

Santhosh Loganaathan, Deputy Manager of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), India, observed that when the mobile phone was mandated to access bikes, it ruled out access for more than half the population. Chennai has a pretty good spread of amenities such as grocery stores, medical shops etc, usually within a radius of 5 kilometres from any point. This gives an opportunity for converting shorter trips into cycling trips. But while the original plan was to deploy 5,000 bikes in 500 docking stations across the city, there are hardly 1,000 bikes deployed now.

“If I rent a SmartBike from a metro station, I will not be able to find a dock to park it near the destination I might want to go to. This makes it a less viable option for last mile connectivity and brings in a mismatch between the original intention and the current status,” says Santhosh, adding that unless the density of the network is increased and all 5,000 cycles are deployed, these cycles would not make an impact as an alternative mode of transport.

A SmartBike rider in Chennai
A SmartBike user in Kotturpuram, Chennai. Pic: Padmaja Jayaraman

J Kishore, yet another user of SmartBike, says that the advantage of riding cycles in Chennai is that it has a flat terrain in most areas. Kishore started riding SmartBikes as a trial run before he bought his own cycle. “I was affected by COVID-19 in 2020. It seemed like a wake-up call for me to keep an eye on my health. Since I want to practise using cycles before getting one for myself, I started using the SmartBikes. But the most challenging factor is the traffic here,” he says.

During his initial days of riding SmartBikes, Kishore found it hard to navigate through the bottleneck traffic. Though he is getting used to it, he said that having an exclusive lane for cycles would be more convenient.

Read more: All that’s needed for a successful cycling revolution in Chennai

Santhosh also points out that the cyclists are usually okay with the Chennai weather as long as they can keep moving, instead of being stuck in traffic. The lack of conducive road infrastructure for cyclists is another roadblock to making it an alternative mode of transport. “Though there was a sense of novelty at the time of launch, it faded over the years. Only functional usage can help in making it a reliable alternative,” he notes.

Speaking about gaps in information and education (as pointed out by Kalyani), Felix John, the Bicycle Mayor of Chennai, says that akin to trains and buses, SmartBikes should also be considered a mode of public transport. “Just as regular announcements are made at railway stations, people should be deployed physically to assist and inform bicycle riders. At least until enough awareness is generated about the bike sharing option as a mode of transport, both online and offline payment modes and instructions in Tamil should be made available at all docking stations,” he says, adding that unless constant engagement efforts are made by the service providers and the government, the public would not come forward to try the cycles.

Read more: Street parking to be charged soon in city: Raj Cherubal, CEO, CSCL

Challenges faced by service providers

The public bike sharing system was introduced in Chennai by GCC in a public private partnership model, wherein the GCC would provide space to park the bikes, while the bike sharing company, SmartBike, would provide the bikes and look into the operation and maintenance of the vehicles.

According to data shared with us by the Greater Chennai Corporation, the average ridership of the SmartBike cycles on weekdays was 1,000 riders, while it reached 1,300 to 1,400 rides during the weekends in a pre-COVID scenario; this was a time when only 250 cycles were deployed. Despite 1,125 bikes deployed in 109 stations now, the ridership has fallen to 600 on weekdays and barely touches 900 on weekends.

Of the 1,125 bikes, around 370 are e-bikes with a user charge of Rs 1 per minute plus 18% GST. The rest of the bikes are eco bikes and NextGen bikes which are charged Rs 5.50 per hour, exceeding which Rs 9.90 would be charged for every additional hour. Even if a maximum of Rs 3,000 is generated in a given day, the running cost alone includes the salary to 20 employees, fuel cost for two redistribution vehicles and daily maintenance works. This makes advertisements an unavoidable source of revenue for service providers. However, of the 109 stations, the service providers are not allowed to display advertisements at 16 docking stations that are located at the metro stations.

“There are plans to expand the docking stations to 68 new locations in the GCC area and 20 locations across metro stations. Since the CMRL is not permitting the display of advertisements, the works are delayed,” said sources from SmartBike, who sought anonymity. They further suggested that the CMRL could announce the availability of SmartBikes and provide concessions for regular users.

Responding to criticisms on mandating smartphones, they also clarified that without smartphones, they would be unable to track the bikes. “If the user goes out of the geo-fencing area (the virtual perimeter of a real-world geographic area which could be tracked used a device), it would not be possible to track the cycle unless their smartphones are connected. Also, we have implemented the same project in other states like Chhattisgarh. Since there is only one app, integration of vernacular languages would be confusing and so we have not included any local languages across the country,” the source responded.

Service providers also complained of instances of vandalism on SmartBikes, which have been increasing in recent times. They have requested the government to set up CCTV cameras at the docking stations and also initiate severe action against those damaging the cycles.

Way forward

“Roads are meant for all. Though it has become a space where one mode of transport is always vying with other for a share of road space, ensuring equal space for all is the government’s responsibility,” says Felix John.

Chennai has a significant cycling population. After the outbreak of COVID-19 in particular, more people have become health conscious and more inclined to cycling. But not everyone has personal access to cycles. This makes SmartBikes a good alternative, in spite of the technological disadvantages that come with it.

However, unless safe roads are provided, the public will choose other modes of transport over the cycles, which puts the responsibility for the success of the project largely on the policy makers. The government could, for example, set an example by announcing a day in a week as cycle day, where employees would be exhorted to cycle to office and those who did would be recognised or incentivised. “It seems like the government is only preaching now, but once it also sets an example by practising the same, the public would be more interested in cycling,” says Prabhu.

Though the Chennai Corporation Council adopted a non-motorised transport policy in October 2014 to make walking and cycling a priority, the pedestrians and cyclists continue to be the most vulnerable groups on the roads. While interventions have to be made at all levels — starting from sensitising the commuters to creating separate cycling lanes — faster, immediate measures like table-top crossing (used to reduce vehicle speeds and also emphasise the presence of the pedestrian crossing) could be brought in at important junctions, says Felix John. Though different bodies of the government including the corporation and traffic police play a vital role in this, will they notice the gaps and prioritise action on this front? That remains to be seen.

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  1. Raghukumar Choodamani says:

    The smart bikes near the Murasoli Maran Park on either sides of the Bridge in Perambur are in a horrible condition. Most of the cycles had fallen down and no one really bothers to check the cycles or maintain them properly.

  2. K.P. Subramanian says:

    The most important reason for the failure of the smart cycling system in Chenaai is the unsafe road environment to ride bicycles. No one will be willing to risk his/her life and limbs knowing the traffic scenerio of the city.

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