The “Free Lunch” public bicycle project
Here’s how it works:
1. An ambitious local political figure decides s/he wants to get greater glory and votes, do something vastly popular, something very fast, and get it all for free. And all that with an election in view.
2. So s/he whips up interest for a public bike project in the city and goes to any of the players out there (suppliers) to find anyone who will deliver the profiled service for a low price (or, better yet, free).
3. As part of the “free lunch” project, s/he manages to convince one of the advertising-based suppliers or some other group who are ready to put in a system against some sort of swap agreement (though increasingly against their own better judgment, since they have seen this one before and find no great satisfaction in being identified with a crushing failure).
4. They agree to do it – since s/he give them everything they are asking for. (Since it’s free. Right?)
5. The project gets ordered, planned and built.
6. But someone forgets to do due diligence to make 100% sure that the demanding infrastructure specifications that are critical to system success are going to be met. (If you can’t cycle safely in your city there is no room for a public bike project. Come back when you have that part of your house in order. Better yet, start today!)
7. The detailed checklists of key points and pivots has not been scrutinized with the needed full expert attention and knowledge of international experience and lessons learned (at time painfully).
8. There is a gala opening day, everyone gets excited, the local media is there, the ribbons are cut and bingo! The system is up and working. Hurrah!
9. But it does not take long for reality to set in.
10. The wonderful new service does not offer the necessary high-grain area-wide coverage, stations and collection points are poorly placed, so the whole thing is vastly underutilized. Instead of 8-12 riders, they are getting a small fraction of that. Oops!
11. And soon the accidents start to roll in.
12. The bike redistribution system is not working properly (no bikes in station, no parking slots available), so many potential users after a certain number of frustrating episodes simply stop relying on it for daily use.
13. Maintenance was vastly under budgeted and is neglected.
14. “Maintenance is all.” (Everybody knows that but somehow it’s not being delivered in the free lunch project.)
15. The anticipated income from subscriptions is not coming in. (And we know who is going to foot that bill when it comes due.)
16. Theft, vandalism, accidents, inadequate enforcement,
17. The project slowly grinds down and finally to a halt, with only vestiges maintained.
18. Happy ending: The local hero who started it all has been elected to another (distant) office and is not around to take the blame.
19. And so it goes.
This is a true story by the way. It really happened. And it’s not the only one.
But there are plenty of other ways to mess up as well. These projects may look simple but that’s just not the case. It’s like walking a tight rope: there are a lot of steps that you could take but only one of them is the right one.
PS. How do you make sure this does not happen in your city? Stay tuned.