European Support for Bicycles Promotes Sharing of the Wheels
BARCELONA, Spain — In increasingly green-conscious Europe, there are said to be only two kinds of mayors: those who have a bicycle-sharing program and those who want one.
Over the last several years, the programs have sprung up and taken off in dozens of cities, on a scale no one had thought possible and in places where bicycling had never been popular.
The sharing plans include not just Paris’s Vélib’, with its 20,000 bicycles, but also wildly popular programs with thousands of bicycles in major cities like Barcelona and Lyon, France. There are also programs in Pamplona, Spain; Rennes, France; and Düsseldorf, Germany. Even Rome, whose narrow, cobbled streets and chaotic traffic would seem unsuited to pedaling, recently started a small trial program, Roma’n’Bike, which it plans to expand soon.
For mayors looking to ease congestion and prove their environmental bona fides, bike-sharing has provided a simple solution: for the price of a bus, they invest in a fleet of bicycles, avoiding years of construction and approvals required for a subway. For riders, joining means cut-rate transportation and a chance to contribute to the planet’s well-being.
The new systems are successful in part because they blanket cities with huge numbers of available bikes, but the real linchpin is technology. Aided by electronic cards and computerized bike stands, riders can pick up and drop off bicycles in seconds at hundreds of locations, their payments deducted from bank accounts.
“As some cities have done it, others are realizing they can do it, too,” said Paul DeMaio, founder of MetroBike, a bicycle transportation consulting company based in Washington, D.C., that tracks programs worldwide. “There is an incredible trajectory.”
The huge new European bicycle-sharing networks function less as recreation and more as low-cost alternate public transportation. Most programs (though not Paris’s) exclude tourists and day-trippers.
Here in Barcelona, streets during rush hour are lined with commuters and errand-goers on the bright red bicycles of Bicing, the city’s program, which began 18 months ago. Bicing offers 6,000 bicycles from 375 stands, which are scattered every few blocks; the bikes seem to be in constant motion.
“I use it every day to commute; everyone uses it,” said Andre Borao, 44, an entrepreneur in a gray suit with an orange tie, as he prepared to ride home for lunch. “It’s convenient, and I like the perspective of moving through the streets.”
The expanding program in Barcelona is typical of so-called third-generation programs, which rely heavily on technology. (In its first generation, bike-sharing involved scattering old bikes around the streets, where they could be used for free; second-generation programs accepted coins.)
Here, a customer buys a yearly membership for about $30 and is issued a smart card that allows the rider to remove a bike from a mechanized dock. The first 30 minutes are free, with a charge of 30 cents per half-hour after that. A bike must be returned to any bike rack in the network within two hours or the card may be deactivated.
Most programs in Germany and Austria work on a different system; members receive cellphone text messages providing codes to unlock the bikes.
Copenhagen and Amsterdam have had devoted bicycling commuters for many years. But the new programs have created the greatest transportation revolution in central and southern Europe, where warmer climates allow riders to ride comfortably year-round. The shared bicycles in Barcelona, Lyon and Paris are heavily used, logging about 10 rides a day, according to officials in these cities.
In North America, issues like insurance liability, a stronger car culture, longer commutes and a preference for wearing helmets have slowed adoption of bicycle-sharing programs. None of the European programs require helmets. Still, Washington and Montreal are experimenting with small projects, and Chicago, Boston and New York are studying options.
Perhaps the best indication that bicycle-sharing has arrived is this: Shanghai, which 10 years ago was trying to eliminate bicycles from some of its boulevards to make way for cars, opened a pilot bike-sharing stand last month.
In most European cities, advertisers have been given contracts to set up and maintain bicycle-sharing programs in exchange for the rights to sell advertisements on city-owned structures like bus stations.
“We provide a turnkey program,” said Martina Schmidt, bike-sharing director of Clear Channel Outdoors, which now runs programs in 13 European cities and recently started its first American program, the one in Washington. “We give the city what they’re looking for, and they give us space to sell.”
Here in Barcelona, the Bicing program has had its glitches, reflecting, in part, its unexpected popularity.
On Barcelona’s outskirts, users complain that the program’s racks, each with up to 36 bikes, can run out toward the end of the morning rush hour, leaving customers temporarily stranded. Likewise, docking sites downtown are sometimes full, so riders have to search for parking.
Car owners complain about the removal of parking spots to accommodate new bike lanes; the city has about 80 miles of lanes, after rapidly expanding the lanes in the past two years.
Barcelona’s downtown business district is in a geographic bowl, compared with most residential neighborhoods, so while many people want to ride downtown to work, fewer want to ride bikes home. Directed by controllers at a command station, Bicing’s 100 employees use trucks to rebalance the system, taking bikes to where they are needed.
City officials seem a bit overwhelmed.
“For the moment, it will not grow anymore,” said Ramón Ferreiro, an official with Bicing. “We now have to consolidate and start working so that maintenance is adequate, and improve the system at all levels.”
Even with the growing pains, José Monllor, a graduate student, says he now rides to class instead of driving his car. “It stays in the parking lot,” he said of his car. “It’s stupid to drive.”
The impact of bike-sharing on traffic or emissions is difficult to quantify because converts include people like Mr. Monllor, who would have driven, as well as those who would have taken public transportation.
Officials in Lyon, one of the first cities to institute a large technology-driven bike program, estimate that bike-sharing has eliminated tons of pollutants since its inception in 2005. But more than that, they say, it has changed the face of the city.
“The critical mass of bikes on the road has pacified traffic,” said Gilles Vesco, vice mayor in charge of the program in Lyon. “Now, the street belongs to everybody and needs to be better shared. It has become a more convivial public space.”