Take a ride on your cellphone

By Mathew Dearnaley

Auckland and several other North Island cities have been selected for a European-style bicycle-hire scheme to be operated with cellphones and credit cards from this summer.

Fleets of bikes will be left unattended at stands around each city for backpackers, students or commuters to hire by using cellphones to obtain combination numbers to unlock them.

Once a bike is returned to its stand, the user will call a freephone number to end the hire, and have the cost of the ride charged to a credit card.

A similar scheme has been running in Germany and Austria for about two years, and is being adapted under licence in this country by Auckland business trainer and cycling enthusiast Julian Hulls, and his company Goodgear Bikes.

And in Paris, a less commercial scheme, which began in July with more than 10,000 bikes at 750 locations, is due to almost double by the end of this year.

Mr Hulls says his bikes will be simple, sturdy and difficult to cannibalise for illegal use as they will have internal gears and components largely incompatible with shop-sold brands.

He says display advertising on the bikes will keep down rental fees, which will be $3 for each of the first four hours, $15 for 24 hours, or $8 for an overnight deal aimed at encouraging commuters to try cycling as an alternative to motorised transport or gym membership.

The bikes will be designed for comfort and safety rather than speed, allowing riders an upright view of the sights of each city rather than requiring them to hunch over handlebars.

"It won't be a bike for doing the Tour de France or to get out in the Woodhill Forest, but maybe you would use it if you were a student cycling out to Mission Bay with bread and cheese for a picnic," Mr Hulls said.

Auckland City Council's transport committee has agreed to let Goodgear use some of the city's existing cycle stands, and Mr Hulls says he has received approval in principle to start operations in Whangarei, Hamilton, Rotorua and Tauranga.

The Auckland council turned down an earlier request for financial support but is offering the company five initial sites around the waterfront, Queen St and in Newmarket for a peppercorn rental for the first year of the scheme.

It is also considering allowing access to stands in parking buildings and will in return receive patronage monitoring information for planners to gauge any demand for more cycling facilities.

Senior transport planner Daniel Newcombe said the proposal supported a council objective of encouraging more people to cycle, at little risk to the city, and the greater the demand for parking stands, the better.

"There will be good potential information from the venture to assist the council in other cycle planning projects," he said.

Mr Hulls told the committee 200 bikes were being manufactured for him in China to the same specifications as those used by the European operation, for delivery in November.

About 80 would stay in Auckland and the rest would be shared around the other cities, which would receive more bikes if the scheme took off and spread to other parts of the country.

Mr Newcombe said the concept would have small beginnings, but it had the potential to be very effective.

He noted the launch of the Velib "bicycle transit scheme" in Paris in July in which more than 10,000 bikes are available for residents and visitors to pick up and drop off at any of 750 locations.

Councillor Penny Sefuiva suggested that visitors to Auckland be warned when hiring the bikes "that our cycling environment is a bit hostile".

"We are not particularly cycle-friendly - it would be very bad publicity if people from overseas were knocked off a bike."

Mr Newcombe told her council staff would consider providing road safety information around bike stands.

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