On my radar: Would we swap bling for bikes?

2012-09-29 12:39

On a recent trip to Paris, I sat at a sidewalk cafe watching the city’s citizens use Vélib’, a bicycle-sharing system pioneered by the French capital in 2007.

If you’ve not heard of the system, you soon will, as the concept is rolling out across the world with different names in each city but using the same principle. (Vélib’ is a portmanteau of the French words for bicycle [vélo] and freedom [liberté].)

In London, although sponsored by Barclays Bank, they are nicknamed “Boris Bikes” (after mayor Boris Johnson, who initiated the system).

In New York, they are sponsored by Citibank and named Citi Bikes. Other cities that have adopted the system include Mexico City, Melbourne, Dublin, Mumbai and Tel Aviv.

But by far the largest system is in Hangzhou, China, which has 60 000 bikes, compared with Paris’ offering of 20 000 bikes.

The concept is simple but relies on good citizenry and mutual respect for shared objects and services.

Dotted across the city are numerous bicycle stations – within 300m of one another – with rows of bicycles, securely docked, ready to be shared by anyone who pays the small subscription fee.

The entire system is automated so there’s no need for human assistance or monitoring.

You register for the service at a station using a credit card, select a bike, unlock it from its docking station and simply ride it to another station.

The first 30 minutes are free and thereafter if the bike is not returned to another station and docked, your credit card is charged by the half hour.

If you don’t return the bike at all, you will pay for it in full.

The system is designed so that it is possible to move around Paris virtually free of charge.

In the first year there were teething problems and Paris suffered substantial losses because of vandalism and had to replace missing bikes.

But now Vélib’ is an integral part of Parisian life, and the service and even the bicycles themselves are highly respected. You see everyone from students to businessmen in suits riding them.

Conceptually, this marks the beginning of a totally new mind-set of sharing rather than owning – transient ownership, if you will.

It is a movement growing steadily in various forms and across several industries.

In trend terms, the 20th century is being seen as one in which ownership mattered.

In the 21st century, thanks to technology, ownership is not necessarily needed to experience something – just think about how digitisation has changed the music industry.

Simfy Africa, a new subscription-based, live-streaming music service in South Africa, is a perfect example. Like bike-sharing, you have access to music whenever you want – for a small monthly subscription.

Whenever I talk about Vélib’ to South Africans, the reaction is inevitably the same.

“Imagine trying to launch it here?” they chortle. “The bikes wouldn’t last a week before they’re all stolen!”

I find the reaction not only pessimistic but also patronising. But I do concede it would be a stretch.

Our crime track record does not make such a system statistically viable but, perhaps, as a developing nation with an emerging middle class, we’re still obsessed with ownership as a means of measuring status and success.

Sharing goes against the essence of bling, and as for riding bicycles as a means of transport, it doesn’t quite say “I’ve arrived” as eloquently as a German sedan.

It’s a real pity. In Africa, we’ve proven to the world that some trends, such as Kenya’s mobile money-transferring phenomenon M-Pesa, which grew out of unique African needs, is seen to have leapfrogged banking trends in first-world countries.

With a new world order rising, wouldn’t it be refreshing if we could overcome the trend of conspicuous consumption here on the African continent?

But the tide seems to be turning. Earlier this month, it was announced the City of Johannesburg will begin construction of a bicycle and pedestrian project in Soweto: a pilot project for other non-motorised transport infrastructure in Gauteng.

This project aims to create a link between Noordgesig in Soweto and Orlando.

The city apparently also has plans to build a further 50km of bicycle routes that are meant to create more sustainable transport modes and healthier alternatives to private car use.

Now we just have to supply the bikes to ensure this plan takes off.
Perhaps we just need an incentive? When all else fails, you can always rely on the power of the ego.

London nicknamed their bikes Boris Bikes. Perhaps Mayor Tau might be enamoured with Parks’ Pedal Power?

If there were suddenly a competition between him and Patricia’s Pedal Pushers in Cape Town, I’m sure he’d rise to the challenge.

» Chang is the founder of Flux Trends: www.fluxtrends.com

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