BiciMad is a good case study to analyze public bicycle services. As the last to arrive, it may enable us to detect where the trends lie, or identify elements of novelty in the area of smart cities. Unfortunately, we spent several weeks trying to contact the press department or the people in charge at BiciMad, and even though we could eventually get in touch, we did not get on time the answers to the questions we asked about technical, logistical and bureaucratic details of the system.
The elements involved in a public bicycle system are the following: the stations where bikes are parked, which offer a user management interface.
The bicycles themselves, used to move from point A to point B, which lies at the core of any transport system; the server infrastructure that centrally manages such aspects as invoicing and control of the transport network.
All bicycles available from BiciMad are electric bicycles manufactured by Booster-bikes, closely related to Bonopark. The engine is located in the front wheel, and according to indirect data it has a power supply of 250W, although it seems it has been limited so that it cannot work at its full capacity. According to what we saw when the stations were established, the battery features are 20V and 4.4 Ah. This capacity seems somewhat scarce, which probably means the batteries we saw were just test batteries. The control system is located in the handle and it has four levels of electric assistance to pedal-power and a button to turn the light on. The light stands at the same level as the tray devised to carry objects around, which means that any object being carried stands in the way of the light. Bikes have an integrated GPS chip, but no details were available to us as to its uses besides locating the bike in case it was stolen or lost. They have no blocking system in case the bike is parked while being used in a given period of time. Their weight amounts to 22 Kg, which is similar to that of other models despite the fact that the battery is included, but still the industrial design is weaker, many cables are visible and there are several moving parts, which are quite noisy when cycling along the street.
The orography of Madrid is quite complex, without any doubt, and in this regard an electric engine makes more sense than it would in other cities. Nevertheless, even in such circumstances, a 3-speed double chain is at odds with the approach of using bicycles to move around the city. It would have been optimal to integrate a double chain that contained more speeds, or even use a system involving two plates. Currently, the bicycle is not as nimble as expected when climbing up, and when cycling down a point is reached in which pedalling is useless irrespective of conditions used, because the cadence is too high.
The loading/park stations do not exactly go unnoticed. Control totems use an Ubuntu Linux system on a Celeron equipment with 8 GB of RAM and 120 GB of hard disk, as we could see in one of the stations. In case all of them are equipped with the same hardware, this is quite an excessive approach. Stations communicate to each other by means of a Sierra Wireless WiFi module. A pre-installation for a web camera is already available, but the camera is not yet installed. Besides, the totems include a three-phase system installation from which they obtain several voltages in alternating/direct current to load batteries (48V) and internal IT systems such as the card expender, the touchscreen or the computer itself.
Several administrative tasks may be performed in totems, such as acquiring cards for sporadic use or managing incidences, including those that involve asking for more time in case a station is full when you mean to return your bike. The system could do with a little more agility; an example of an agile system is the Bicing system in Barcelona.
From a network infrastructure point of view, no information is available on its topology, although it may be expected to have an exclusive server to receive data on stations and feed mobile applications for Android and iOS.
Integration with the city
From the point of view of integration with the city, we considered the fact that totems were not used for other urban tasks to be a drawback. For example, they could have been used to display a WiFi connectivy network for the city (especially now that the infrastructure and services provided by Gowex have been put into question) or to install cameras and sensors to detect the noise or pollution level, besides data involving the use of bicycles. We also missed data from service usage being available under an Open Data licence, as they are in other parts of the world. In principle, judging by the security breaches BiciMad suffered in the first weeks, most of the code will need rewriting, and the City Council should be expected to take the right measures to rationalize the use of data and make them available to app developers and to citizens as well. Right now, obtaining precise data on station load is difficult, and and no data are offered in the app regarding the number of bikes parked in a given station1. In the ranking of use, accumulated data are not reliable: some users were told that after using a bicycle in the system three times, they had cycled 200 km and burned 0.30 calories.
Integration with spaces does not go unnoticed either (load systems are quite bulky and require space). Red and green LED strips in every station seem somewhat excessive, and they are a source of light pollution in places like parks or the historic city centre. A more modest indication would be equally helpful without being so extravagant and disproportionate. The design of totems would have been nicer if they were not that large. Their future use for other administrative city processes is expected, most of all when considering that the computer system used is powerful enough to perform extremely demanding services.
The infrastructure regarding the adaptation of urban roads is not especially good either. Instead of betting hard on bike lanes, other lanes called “lane 30” were created, where cars, buses, motorcycles and vans co-exist with bikes, under the premise that motor vehicles should adapt their velocity to that of bicycles. This sounds well from a theoretical point of view, but in practice many problems arise, such as those related to inhaling smoke from car exhausts when moving again after stopping at traffic lights, having to put up with traffic jams if there is not enough space to move or bearing the tension involved in motorcycle takeovers or the impatience of a hasty driver.
Prices, display, Open Data and bureaucracy
As for the price policy, current trends involve the combination of sporadic use aimed at tourists or occasional users and regular use made by citizens. In all the services we compared, the first 30 or 45 minutes are for free if an annual or monthly subscription is used. BiciMad has decided to charge all users, even subscribers, which is a mistake if the service is intended to “capillarise” and be adopted as a means of transport with full rights. It should not be forgotten that cycling brings about benefits that are translated into savings for the administration and contribute to achieving the goals set by the EU in programmes such as Europe 2020, in areas as reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Pricing, according to Bonopark, was an imposition from the government. Compensations exist for leaving bikes in low-occupation stations or taking them from high-occupation stations, but such compensations only amount to 10 Euro cents, clearly unattractive if they imply having to move to a different station from the one initially planned.
The system deployment fell short of expectations in the initial phase for such a big city as Madrid; the station network would be proper for touristic use only, but not for regular transport. It does not even reach strategic places such as Ventas or the University City. Anyway, the system is already working and what is essential is to take the first step forward towards a sustainable and ecologic transport system in Madrid, in order to join the smart mobility movement.
Time is the real judge when it comes to such services; in a few months, when all statistics are available, it will be the right time to evaluate the impact on the city. Madrid should make an effort to function in a Smart way, and BiciMad is an opportunity for the integration of services, data and functionality in the context of smart cities. The potential is already there. It has not yet been used properly, and big mistakes have been done in critical aspects such as security, customer care or service reliability. But it may be done. And it will be done.
1.The article was written on July 2014, back then, the app of BiciMad did not offer any data regarding the number of bikes parked in a given station. We have been informed that nowadays it has changed, and the app does offer this service.