Solving the Tragedy of the Commons

 

(edited for clarity)

Bike sharing has become something of a plague for those who don’t appreciate its advantages. Even for those who do, the sight of bikes lying all over the place, broken, is jarring in a place like Singapore. But the solution is not obvious. First off, you need to have a mechanism for policing errant bikes and the companies that own them. You need to find a way for users to report them. Then to punish the offending companies.

But wouldn’t that just encourage companies to damage or mislay their rival companies’ bikes? I am pretty sure that’s already happening — I see lots of slashed seats and vandalized bikes, which I’m willing to bet are not all caused by deviant residents.

The result: the old problem of the tragedy of the commons, where common resources, in this case space, is damaged for all by those who choose to externalise their costs. In this case that’s the bike companies, who have no clear incentive to keep their bikes tidy and shipshape. So the supposed ‘commons service’ they’re offering — cheap, available, healthy personal transportation — in fact is a downgrade for those people who appreciate their public spaces — sidewalks, parks, verges — clean.

So I have a solution:

* instead of fining each company for transgressions of their bikes, you fine all companies equally for each bike that is out of place, broken, or obstructing. Three bike companies, say, get the same fine for any bike misplaced, whichever company owned the bike.
* Each company would be required to include in their app a standard method of reporting broken or misplaced bikes. This information would go to the company — but would also go through to a central repository managed by whatever government agency oversees the bike companies. Individuals reporting a case that is subsequently found to be accurate are rewarded by the bike company in question — free rides, or whatever. If the bike company can resolve the incident within 24 hours there will be no fine.
* Fines are collected by the agency and pay for the inspection teams and for publicity.
* A tally is kept. If one company is clearly more egregious than the others, action might be taken by the agency.

In the long run I think a better system would be to use LoRa or another narrowband technology to better monitor the location of bikes and theitr state. But for now this might just be enough. I’ll write a more detailed proposal on that later.