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Smart bikes: bike-sharing redux

In cities like Paris, Barcelona and Vienna, residents use a smarter generation of bike-sharing programs. Now North American cities like Montreal and Washington, DC prepare to launch their own rental bike fleets. We take a look at how it works and why Paris just added 10,000 more bikes.

Bike sharing programs have gone from idealistic experiments sabotaged by theft- the “white bike” program in Amsterdam in 1968 or the “yellow bikes” of Portland, Oregon in the early 1990s- to computerized versions experiencing such success that even cities without traditional bike cultures are betting on this revolutionary alternative for emissions-free mass transit.

Beyond Amsterdam

When Paris launched their bike-sharing program- named Vélib for vélo (bike) and liberté (freedom)- in July of 2007, no one could have predicted that 10,000 bikes and 750 self-service bike stations would be inadequate. After all in this city pre-Vélib, only about 2% of all trips were taken by bike, compared with a city like Amsterdam where 40% of commuters bike to work.

The Vélib program is part of Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë’s plan to reduce car traffic by 40% in the city by 2020 and so far it seems to be working.

Three months post-launch, over 100,000 Parisians had bought an annual membership and the bikes had been taken on 6 million trips. By the end of 2007, there will be over 20,000 bikes and nearly 1,500 stations.

While Paris currently has the largest program, they are not alone. The bike-sharing phenomenon is being replicated across Europe in cities like Frankfurt, Stockholm, Vienna, Pamplona, Brussels, Berlin, Oslo and London.

In Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain, the Bicing shared bike program has given thousands access to wheels. In 2006 it was estimated that Barcelona had just 50,000 cyclists, but just five months after Bicing was launched in March of 2007, 90,000 Barcelonans had signed up. By summer of 2008, 4,500 new bicycles will be added to the already existing 1,500.

Whether Stockholm or Pamplona, in each city, hundreds or thousands of bicycles are being released onto the street often literally overnight. As Pierre Aidenbaum- one of Paris’ district mayors- explained to the New York Times, bike-sharing is poised to revolutionize urban transportation. “For a long time cars were associated with freedom of movement and flexibility. What we want to show people is that in many ways bicycles fulfill this role much more today.”

White bike program

What appears to be an overnight success is really over four decades in the making. Back in 1964 the Dutch counterculture group Provo painted hundreds of bicycles white and left them on the streets of Amsterdam for anyone to use. The plan behind their “white bicycle” program was for a car-free Amsterdam and to eventually provide 20,000 free bikes. But the bikes ended up stolen or in the canals and the program ended.

Similar programs have been launched to provide public-use bicycles (PUBs)- also called “city bikes”, “free bikes”, or named after any color of bike- in many other cities, like in Milan in the 1970s and Portland, Oregon in the 1990s-, but none were able to go mainstream due to the issue of theft.

Some of these programs still exist, like Yellow Bikes of Austin (Texas), but even the organizers realize that their goal has shifted from providing bikes for all to providing bikes for those in need. “Truth-be-told many of the Yellow Bikes that we release end up being taken by an individual as a private bike.

Although this is opposite of our stated purpose of releasing community bikes to ride but not to own, we realize that those willing to ride a bike hand painted yellow are very much in need.”

Generation 2: coin-operated bike-shares

Beginning in the mid-nineties, more secure versions of these bike sharing programs were introduced in European cities. In Copenhagen, City Bike was launched in 1995 using a coin-operated method similar to those used on some supermarket grocery carts.

A 20 kroner coin (about $3) deposited into the bike handlebar unlocks the bike from any of the 125 parking places and when returned, the coin deposit is returned.

Although the small fee has encouraged some theft, the City Bike program is still active with 2,000 bikes and is currently the longest running bike-sharing program worldwide. Helsinki has a similar program in operation during summertime with bikes that take a € 2 deposit.

Generation 3: a smarter ride

What finally freed the bike-sharing concept to spread to the mainstream was the advent of a “smart” rentabike concept: one that relied on magnetic stripe cards allowing for electronic payment, tracking and locking.

Both Paris’ Vélib and Barcelona’s Bicing use smartcards, but the concept was first launched in 1998 in Rennes, France. Rennes’ Vélo à la Carte is still functioning successfully with its 200 bikes, but what caused the rest of the world to take notice was a much larger program launched 800 kilometers to the other side of France.

Started with 1,500 bikes (increased to 4,000 by 2007), Lyon’s Vélo’v had attracted 15,000 users less than three months after its launch in 2005. International press like the UK’s Guardian newspaper called it “a runaway success” and city councilmember Gilles Vesco declared, “very quickly, we’ve moved from being a curiosity to a genuine new urban transport mode.”

There is little barrier to entry for the average city-dweller to try this new transit method. Users simply pay an annual fee- 5 € in Lyon, 29 € in Paris and 24 € in Barcelona- and receive a personalized magnetic stripe card allowing them to “check-out” and return bikes to any of the computerized racks scattered throughout the cities as frequently as subway stations or bus stops.

The first half hour is free in most cities and after that the fees are nominal- 30 cents/half hour in Barcelona and 1 euro/hour in Paris. Since most journeys are less than 30 minutes, they are usually free.

Collective individualism

The service is cheap because the cities generally aren’t paying for them. By partnering with billboard advertising companies, like Clear Channel Adshel (Stockholm, Oslo, Barcelona) and JC Decaux (Paris, Lyon, Brussels), city governments have avoided the cost of buying the bikes and the docking stations. Instead, the ad companies have paid up to 2,000 euros per bike in exchange for exclusive rights to advertising space on city billboards and bus shelters.

By keeping costs low and launching large numbers of bikes on city streets- which have proved mostly immune to theft due to their traceability and the relatively secure computerized bike racks- this newer generation of bike share programs have proved able to deliver bikes to their urban residents wherever they need them, whenever they need them.

As Lyon’s councilmember Vesco told the French newspaper Libération: “Our success reflects a cultural shift that you could call collective individualism. Everyone chooses their own destination, route and timetable, but they use a collective means of transport.”

An alternative to short car trips

Besides helping cities fight congestion and parking problems, bike-sharing programs have been implemented to provide an alternative to carbon-emitting vehicles.

Currently in Europe, only 5% of travel is made by bicycle, but given that that rate is significantly higher in some countries- 27% in the Netherlands and 18% Denmark- the European Economic and Social Committee argues that bicycle use can be influenced by government policy. They see the most potential for growth in short trips of up to 5 to 8 km, which are now made by car more than half of the time.

“The growth potential of bicycle use for short distances is the basis for calculations of the contribution that a good cycling policy can make to combating climate change. According to recent calculations, for example, short journeys by car (less than 7.5 km) account for about 6 % of total emissions from cars.”

Lanes for all those bikes

The bike-sharing programs have helped some to opt for biking over driving. According to a study of the Lyon program, about 7% of the Vélo’v trips replaced the car. While this is much less than the number of trips that replaced public transport (50%), given the popularity of the program Lyon’s communal bikes are preventing 150,000 car trips per year.

Simply scattering thousands of shared bikes across city streets is inadequate for a true longterm change in behavior without the bike lane networks to support them. Protests in the 1970s and 1980s in Denmark and the Netherlands led to better networks which are able to support their large biking population today.

In Paris, Mayor Delanoë and his administration have added 125 miles of bike paths since he took office in 2001. But in Barcelona, while the city has promised to add 22 km to the 135 existing kilometers of bike lanes, the bikes arrived before the extra lanes causing some growing pains.

In September of 2007- 5 months after launch-, Barcelona Police began cracking down on bikers using sidewalks less than 5 meters wide or for parking illegally.

Biking advocates like Albert Garcia of the group Coordinadora Catalana d’Usuaris de la Bicicleta (CCUB) argue the city should have first added lanes and better parking before starting the bike-sharing program.

“Every day cyclists are faced with more limited space on the streets, yet while they are putting so many restrictions onto cyclists they are implementing this photogenic scheme to use for propaganda. We’re not against Bicing, but they should have put the infrastructure in first, then the bicycles.”

Bike-sharing prestige

Given the success of high-tech bike-sharing in Europe, now North American cities are preparing to replicate the model.

By fall of 2008, Montreal will have 2,400 bikes in 300 stations in central neighborhoods. Montreal already has 300 km of city bike paths and over 600 km in the surrounding area and government members are embracing the new program as an added symbol of their support for cycling.

According to Montreal transportation committee member André Lavallée, “Montreal wants to be the bicycle city par excellence in North America, and this project will definitely help us get there.”

Cycling for a car culture

U.S. cities are also starting to strike deals. Portland, Oregon and Chicago are considering programs and Washington DC and San Francisco tried smaller pilots in the spring of 2007.

The Washington, D.C. program- carried out in the suburbs of Annapolis, Maryland and Alexandria and Arlington, Virginia- integrates existing public transport by using the same smartcard in effect for D.C.’s subway system.

San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom who has been lobbying for the program- the proposal involves a deal with Clear Channel (from the Barcelona program)- argues that his city is ripe for bike-sharing. “The appetite for the system is there, and people will naturally gravitate toward it.”

Newsom argues that even in a country with a strong car culture, easy access to bikes can change behavior. “People will think twice about the need to get in their car and go five or 10 blocks,” the mayor said.

While critics in many North American cities argue there aren’t enough bike lanes to support a widescale program, Jean-Luc Dumesnil, cycling policy adviser to the Paris City Hall argues: “It’s the cycling paths, but it’s also a question of critical mass. The more bikes there are, the more car drivers get used to them and the more care they take.”

Canadian bike lobbyist Suzanne Lareau would agree. “The more bikes on the street, the slower the cars have to go.”

Bike-sharing programs worldwide


Mobile phone:


  • Helsinki, Finland: Citybike.
  • London (Hammersmith and Fullham), UK: OYBike.

Free bikes: