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Riders on the storm: Shared bikes and scooters show the need for new road rules

Bikes pile up in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Photo / Getty Images

With the advent of ride-share scooters and e-bikes, it's time to reconsider the road rules - so everyone can stay safe.

On a sunny spring Sunday, I rode my sister’s bike from our garden shed in Bucklands Beach, where it had been over-wintering, to her apartment in Grey Lynn. I didn’t actually ride Google Map’s suggested 30km; instead I cycled to Half Moon Bay, ferried to downtown, then biked from there to my sister’s.

Fair to say, though, I didn’t take the most direct route. I was trying to follow a couple of the city’s bike pathways, which didn’t quite connect for my purposes so required diversionary tactics. Unfortunately, I’m at the hopeless end of the spatial abilities spectrum, which covers map reading and something called “self-location”. I’m one of those people who gets lost in shopping malls and should not go into the bush alone. You might see us on street corners, rotating maps, even smartphones, which aren’t yet smart enough to compensate entirely for our lack of ability to manipulate geometric information in our heads.
Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

So what should have taken me about 25 minutes ended up more like 45. But I toured some interesting back-streets of Eden Terrace and Kingsland – and it was such a blue-skied, blossomy day I didn’t mind the detour. Besides, I felt virtuous cycling about the city, even on a weekend while making no contribution to easing Auckland’s rush-hour traffic congestion.

Three weeks earlier, I’d cycled through Beijing with my son. He had to download two bike-share apps, because you can’t hire multiple bikes with the same company, but that took him about a minute and a half (he’s a millennial), and there was a bunch of orange (Mobike) and yellow (Ofo) dockless bicycles to choose from in front of his apartment. These rental bikes are everywhere in Beijing: marshalled outside train stations and bus stops, scattered over verges, parks and paths, like Christo’s bad twin unleashed. And this was post-purge. Last year, dozens of bike-share companies flooded Chinese cities with more than 10 million brightly coloured rental bicycles. Already-crowded streets became impassable as abandoned bikes piled up. Cities impounded derelict bikes by the thousands. Some companies went bust. The legacy is mass graveyards of broken and surplus bikes, cloaked in dust and vines on once-vacant city lots.

Speculation gone mad? Or unintended consequences of what is otherwise a healthy, cheap, environmentally friendly form of public transport?

Kiwi start-up Onzo’s black-and-yellow bikes hit the streets of Auckland last year and recently launched in Wellington (they’re single-speed, so not for the capital’s fainthearted). Meanwhile, Christchurch City Council just pulled out of negotiations with China’s mighty Mobike, so it seems there’ll be no bike share scheme for the city’s cyclists this summer.

Dockless rental bikes are not in New Zealand in the kind of numbers to create dump-and-ditch havoc, but there’s already a Facebook page “Onzos in weird places” – showing bikes wedged in trees, dangling from streetlights and being fished out of waterways.

Heated online debate about the pros and cons of share bikes was tailing off when suddenly, in mid-October, bright green, rental electric scooters burst onto the streets of Auckland and Christchurch; US company Lime dropped 600 of them in Auckland and 400 in the south. Within days, the e-scooters were being described as “a menace on footpaths”; 14 ACC injury claims from riders were logged in the first week (they can reach 27kmh and helmets are not provided). Online chatter ramped up, with the “ban them” brigade rallying against e-wheeler enthusiasts.

Auckland Council has the scooter sharing service on a three-month trial, after which it will decide whether to extend Lime’s licence. In fact, e-scooters have been allowed in New Zealand since 2004; they just haven’t turned up en masse before, begging app-savvy teenagers to take them for top-speed spins on city walkways.

What’s been highlighted by the shared-scooter/bike ruckus is the need for measured public debate around the new “road rules” – how we learn to behave towards each other as we move to greener forms of getting about. And much bigger on-road moral dilemmas loom: a global study recently asked millions of people what they thought a driverless car should do in the face of an unavoidable accident. In surveys, we tend to say the right thing. It would be nice to see some of that goodwill – and good manners – translate to our streets.