Thinking our way out of over-engineering solutions
Free and unregulated cycle schemes sound like an impossible nightmare that we could never really make happen: someone will steal the bikes, they'll end up all over the country. Institutions therefore rally around and make it their business, quite literally, to provide secured bicycles for rental so that people cycle more.
It all seems so logical, but it's the kind of (successful but expensive) thinking from an old model of paternalistic "what can your country do for you", while some of the most exciting ideas, web platforms, institutions and technologies in the past five years have been all about "here's a platform, now what can you do for your country/peer group/friends".
I wanted to explore what a new business model around the old problem of bike sharing schemes might look like.
The $10,000 bike, versus the $150 bike
London's "free" bike scheme cost the locals and sponsors Barclays £25m for a programme that will run for x years. The cost per bicycle is therefore £4166. It's been a hugely successful scheme, with its millionth ride clocked up in just 10 weeks, and hardly any have been stolen (the bikes are a good bit heavier than Paris', where nearly 70% have been stolen or vandalised and required replacing).
But £4166 seems a lot for one bike, with Mayor Boris' £25m giving him only 6000 or so bikes. How much more powerful could things be if we did away with the expensive secutiy measures, expensive (heavy and cumbersome) bikes, big IT that supports such a project (and breaks down) and replaced them with the cheapest bike we can find, no security measures and a good dose of trust in our citizens, providing 163,000 bikes instead?
It wouldn't work here [insert any Western country].
Paris shows us that vandalism and theft of their cute with-basket model was a costly mistake. London has "beaten" its Gaullic neighbour with its highly secure and tech-ed up solution. Countless others, including some who've already tried totally unregulated free cycle schemes, have floundered, seeing all their bikes stolen in months.
But then Mountain View, California, sees its streets relatively free of the automobile (we are in the land of the automobile, after all). Most people opt to take one of the free red-yellow-blue-and-green bikes their main employer leaves unlocked, lying around. Why is Google able to do what entire Governments seem unable to achieve?
Is it cultural? It's partly that, but Google have done something that Governments are notoriously poor at: it's generated the culture it wanted, a culture of mutual respect, a culture of the gift economy, both through its business model, large free lunches and orange juices for visitors, staff and the visitors' taxi drivers, but also through its bike sharing scheme. We'll gift you this bike - and keep replacing them - but in return we ask you not to take us for a metaphorical ride.
And it works. It works, I think, because these bikes are everywhere and they're fun. They've been gifted by a neighbour of yours in the city, not provided for you.
So, if we were to take the Paris or London models, what is the answer to stopping people stealing bikes and having them appear all around the country? I'd argue that if Governments want people to take the bike and not the car, that's no bad thing. In fact, if we can harness thiefs as the distribution network for one bike per citizen, then I'd see more cash heading into the core solution to the problem: more bikes for people who don't yet bike.
As in Mountain View, there comes a point where the proliferation of an idea or an object turns it from scarce valued thing into a commodity. It lets everyone know where the bike came from - it's been beautifully painted in the company colours. Let's get our nations cycling to work (and cycling for play) by making cycling a cheap commodity. We used to give £250 for every child that was born. What would happen if we give a £100 bike for every adult who wants one?
More importantly, though, how could we harness the Google lesson I think I've spotted, in making public services gifted to people, rather than provided for them? What would the social fall-out be in terms of changing this language? What would the advantages be?
Nick Hood suggests that one of the education assumptions we have in the Western world is that education is a right; he asks "what would happen if we said that education was a privilege" or, in Google words, a gift?