By Janet Larsen
Politicians, lobbyists, and tourists alike can ride bicycles along a specially marked lane between the White House and the U.S. Capitol, part of the 115 miles of bicycle lanes and paths that now crisscross Washington, DC. In Copenhagen, commuters can ride to work following a “green wave” of signal lights timed for bikers. Residents in China’s “happiest city,” Hangzhou, can move easily from public transit onto physically separated bike tracks that have been carved out of the vast majority of roadways. New York’s gone green, too, with vast expansion of their bike lanes among the initiatives. And on any given Sunday in Mexico City, some 15,000 cyclists join together on a circuit of major thoroughfares closed to motorized traffic. What is even more exciting is that in each of these locations, people can jump right into cycling without even owning a bicycle. Welcome to the era of the Bike Share.
Cyclists have long entreated drivers to “share the road.” Now what is being shared is not only the road but the bicycle itself. Forward-thinking cities are turning back to the humble bicycle as a way to enhance mobility, alleviate automotive congestion, reduce air pollution, boost health, support local businesses, and attract more young people. Bike-sharing systems—distributed networks of public bicycles used for short trips—that integrate into robust transit networks are being embraced by a growing number of people in the urbanizing world who are starting to view car ownership as more of a hassle than a rite of passage.
Where It All Started: Bike Sharing in Europe
Today more than 500 cities in 49 countries host advanced bike-sharing programs, with a combined fleet of over 500,000 bicycles. Urban transport advisor Peter Midgley notes that “bike sharing has experienced the fastest growth of any mode of transport in the history of the planet.” It certainly has come a long way since 1965, when 50 bicycles were painted white and scattered around Amsterdam for anyone to pick up and use free of charge. Unfortunately, many of those bikes quickly disappeared or were damaged. In the 1990s, several Danish cities began more formal systems, with designated racks and coin deposits to check out bicycles. Copenhagen’s famed Bycyklen (“City Bike”) program, which has been an inspiration to many cities, finally closed at the end of 2012 after operating for 17 years with more than 1,000 bicycles. It is set to be replaced by a modern system in 2013, which could help Copenhagen meet its goal of increasing the share of commuting trips on bike from an already impressive 36 percent to 50 percent.
Modern bike-sharing systems have greatly reduced the theft and vandalism that hindered earlier programs by using easily identified specialty bicycles with unique parts that would have little value to a thief, by monitoring the cycles’ locations with radio frequency or GPS, and by requiring credit card payment or smart-card-based membership in order to check out bikes. In most systems, after paying a daily, weekly, monthly, or annual membership fee, riders can pick up a bicycle locked to a well-marked bike rack or electronic docking station for a short ride (typically an hour or less) at no additional cost and return it to any station within the system. Riding longer than the program’s specified amount of time generally incurs additional fees to maximize the number of bikes available.
Although the Netherlands and Denmark had far more pervasive cycling cultures, it was France that ushered the world into the third generation of bike sharing in 1998, when advertising company Clear Channel began the world’s first public computerized program with 200 bikes in the city of Rennes. The country moved into the big leagues in 2005 when Lyon, France’s third largest city, opened its Vélo’v program with 1,500 bikes at some 100 automated self-service docking stations. Its success—an apparent 44 percent increase in bicycle ridership in the first year—paved the way for large-scale bike sharing’s early shining star: the Vélib’ in Paris.
Vélib’ was launched in 2007 with 10,000 bicycles at 750 stations, and it quickly doubled in size. By the end of 2012, Vélib’, which is funded in a 10-year contract with advertising firm JCDecaux in exchange for street-side ad space, could claim more than 224,000 annual members and had surpassed 130 million trips. Since the system’s launch, the number of cyclists on the streets has risen 41 percent, with more than one out of every three bicycles on Paris streets being a shared bike. With bikes accounting for just 3 percent of traffic, though, there is still room for growth, and that is the plan. Bike sharing is part of a broader initiative to reduce automotive traffic and pollution in Paris, which includes closing prominent streets to cars on weekends, reducing speed limits, marking dedicated bus lanes to help move people en masse more efficiently, and extending the bike lanes network to 430 miles (700 kilometers) by 2014—all championed by Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë, who has said that “automobiles no longer have a place in the big cities of our times.”
Meanwhile, programs were popping up throughout Italy and Spain like mushrooms after a rainfall. According to figures maintained by Peter Midgley, Italy had 47 bike-sharing programs in 2007, Spain had 36, and France had 18. Many were smaller scale, with tens of bikes rather than thousands. But a few stand out. Spain’s signature program in Barcelona became so popular soon after its launch in 2007—getting many new riders to try bike commuting for the first time—that by 2008 it had quadrupled its fleet to 6,000 bikes and planned extensions to the surrounding communities. Seville also began bike sharing in 2007 as part of a rapid transformation to make the central city more accommodating to people, not just cars. In less than 5 years, cycling leapt from close to nothing to cover 6 percent of trips. As of late 2012, Spain leads the world with 132 separate bike-share programs. Italy has 104, and France, 37. With a wave of new openings in 2009 and 2010, Germany joined the group of leading countries and now has 43 programs, including some with stationless bikes that can be located and accessed by mobile phone. (See data.)
Other European countries have fewer programs, but some are very active. Dublin’s 550-bike system boasts a high membership and frequent rides on each bike. London’s Barclays Cycle Hire system launched in 2010 with 6,000 bikes and has grown beyond 8,000. As part of Mayor Boris Johnson’s “cycling revolution,” London is introducing several new cycle paths and “superhighways” in hopes of doubling the number of cycling trips within the next decade. In the Netherlands, a different breed of bike sharing run by the national railroad makes some 5,000 bikes available at more than 240 rail stations and other popular commuting spots. In Eastern Europe, which appears to be on the brink of a bike-sharing bonanza, Warsaw opened a program in August 2012 with 1,000 bikes that were ridden 130,000 times in that first month. The city now has some 2,500 shared bikes.
Bike-sharing enthusiasm has spread to Eastern Asia, Australia, and the Americas as well. Russell Meddin, who along with Paul DeMaio has chronicled and mapped the world’s bike-sharing programs, reports that even Dubai launched a program in February 2013.