Public bicycle services: an overview on “Pedal Power”

Electric bike

Their origin may be tracked back to 1973, when the oil crisis started

Barcelona launched Bicing in 2007 and now has 6,000 bicycles


The second option for bicycles to be adopted as a means of transport are public bicycle services established in every given city. Such services may be tracked back to the year 1973. Cycling around was already widespread in the 1950s, but the increase in living standards in the 60s and 70s brought about the use of cars instead of bikes as a means of transport.

Due to the oil crisis in 1973, the government fostered moving around on two wheels in countries such as the Netherlands or Denmark. Since then, using the bicycle has become a part of their culture, and more than 30% of the population in cities such as Copenhagen, The Hague or Amsterdam is known to use cycling as a means of transport on a regular basis. In order to put the figure in context, we may consider that, on average, less than 8% of the total population in Europe uses bicycles as a means of transport on a regular basis, and in the USA the percentage goes down to about 1%.

Well into the 21st century, attempts to establish bike sharing services made by most countries were not really successful, with the exception of Denmark, where Copenhagen City Bikes operated from 1995 to 2012, when it was cancelled to be succeeded by a better service that included electric bicycles, monitor-equipped GPS or electronic anti-theft systems (Bycyklen). Misuse from citizens (a few of them), and scarce or even non-existing protection measures for bicycles involved theft and improper service use, even in countries traditionally considered to have a high civic spirit. Thefts and improper uses pulled the plug on such initiatives. At the beginning of the 21st century, services were established in the main cities in the world. Barcelona, for example, started to offer its Bicing service in March 2007. BiciMad, Madrid’s service, started in June 2014; New York’s started working in May 2013, and San Francisco’s began in August. Using bicycles as a means of transport is being taken very seriously in the USA, and services are being established in cities at an astonishing rate: more than 20 cities are involved in offering such mobility services in 2014.

Other parameters are considered in China. For example, bike services in Hangzhou provide 65,000 bicycles to a population of about 6.5 million people. The Chinese city of Wuhan has 90,000 bicycles, and 20,000 bicycles are available in Shanghai. Paris is the European city where more public bicycles are available: 20,600 (including Paris and other French cities that use the same system) and as much as 6,000 bicycles are available in Barcelona. There are 1,580 public bicycles in Madrid. In the USA, more than 6,000 public bicycles are available in New York, which sets the city at the top of the country.

The introduction of shared bicycle services started to become established around companies that specialize in the display and even management and maintenance of the system once it has been introduced. One of such companies was in charge of establishing some of the most recent services in the world: Public Bike System PBSC Urban Solutions. The company undertook projects in London, New York, Montreal, Toronto and the San Francisco Bay area; in some cases, partnerships were established with other companies, such as Alta Bicycle Share. In the USA, Boulder B-Cycle runs projects in more than 20 cities in the country. The company managing the service in Barcelona, Oslo, Stockholm, Milan and Perpignan is Clear Channel, and the BiciMad service in Madrid was awarded to the company Bonopark after a bidding process.

Madrid: a case study 

There are more than 530 shared bicycle systems all over the world, which makes listing them all a very complex task. The most recently introduced system was that of Madrid: BiciMad. After waiting for several years, the system -with 123 bike stations and 1,580 bicycles- was definitively launched last July. Along with the bicycles came many initial problems, which brought about an improper service in the first weeks. For a city to be smart, it is essential to have a keen eye for detail and dimension technology, locations, infrastructure and even fares in a smart and rational way; decisions taken should be coherent and optimal. An analysis of the decisions and conditions of use of BiciMad, as the most recent and closest public bicycle service, is provided elsewhere in the report.

Transforming cities to make them bicycle-friendly

The starting point towards the adoption of a bicycle mobility policy lies in the adaptation of cities to this means of transport. Changes should be made both from the point of view of regulations -giving bicycles full rights to share urban roads with motor vehicles or allowing the transportation of bicycles by other public transport systems, such as the underground- as well as from the urban point of view, by creating special bike lanes and park places. The study for the introduction of a bicycle sharing system in Copenhagen in Copenhagen undertaken by RAFAA Architecture and Design may be pointed out as an example. It considers several dimensions in the project, including the industrial design of bicycles as well as the transformation of urban spaces in order to merge park places with urban spaces so that they fit in perfectly.

From the point of view of regulations and incentives, France has recently announced the decision to pay workers to travel to their offices by bike. Companies will be in charge of handing in the money: 25 Euro cents for each kilometer cycled. Several initiatives already in operation in Denmark, the Netherlands and the UK offer financial benefits to bike users, or else they exempt bike owners from paying taxes when buying their bicycles. But still, giving money directly to cyclists is somewhat peculiar. The goal to be achieved is to foster the use of bicycles until around 50% of workers use them on a regular basis.

Once cities have been provided with regulations and spaces for bicycles, sustainable mobility may start, whether by buying bikes or by using public bicycle services or bike rental services.

Successful experiences also exist outside Nordic countries. Sevilla is a global reference for policies that involve fostering public transport. Zaragoza has done a good job too, as well as Barcelona, where the Bicing system was launched in 2007 and has been working since then with excellent citizen acceptance. The public bicycle system in Madrid (BiciMad) was recently launched, but the measures taken to get urban roads ready were somewhat hasty, as well as the business model chosen. Specifically, the focus has been set on prioritizing the co-existence of cars and bicycles in the so-called “30-lanes”, which may be used by both conventional vehicles and bicycles but where the latter have preference over cars. Hardly any bike lane has been created, and the quality of road surfaces is less than good in many sections of urban roads: important road bumps exist, and road surfaces are seriously eroded, which leaves gravel unprotected.

Cities around the world: a comparison

Data were obtained either from the service website itself or from Wikipedia and other articles where special features such as bicycles were analyzed. The number of stations and bicycles is a dynamic figure that, in firmly established services, varies according to expansion and maintenance policies undertaken by each city. At first sight, one may reach the conclusion that bikes are quite heavy on average (which is uncomfortable) but precisely because of that they are also more robust and stable. The first 30 or 45 minutes are free in almost all services except for BiciMad. All services permit taking as many 30-minute free rides as desired, as long as there is a certain time between rides, which may range from 10 to 15 minutes or even less depending on the city. As time of use increases, so does the fare, in order to prevent bicycles being used for other purposes than moving from A to B. For example, up to 7 dollars may be claimed in San Francisco for each additional 30-minute period.

Public bicycle services: an overview on “Pedal Power”

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