Bicycle Sharing Systems
The Evolution of Bike Sharing Programs
Written for Bike Share Philadelphia by Kyle Gradinger
There are many methods for implementing bike-sharing, but the goal is always the same: To provide bicycles to the public for free or little cost in order to encourage bicycling as a viable alternative form of transportation, to reduce traffic congestion and to enhance the livability of cities. Bike-sharing programs have existed in various forms for several decades beginning with altruistic, communal initiatives in a number of college towns and progressive enclaves across the U.S. and around the globe. Today, bike-sharing programs can be organized into three main categories: Communal shared-bike (Painted Bike) programs, municipal deposit programs and privately-managed, IT-driven programs. The IT-driven programs can be further divided into groups based on characteristics of funding and operation. Each of these techniques aims to fill the gap between trips that can be made on foot and those that require the use of public transit or private automobiles.
The original “Painted Bike” programs were based on a spirit of communal sharing and have been around for decades – primarily in university towns and progressive cities such as Charlottesville, Va., Madison, Wis., and Portland, Or. In these programs, donated bikes are collected each spring and painted entirely in one color. When the weather becomes nice enough, volunteers deploy the bikes in popular community gathering areas such as student unions and pedestrian malls. If one sees a Painted Bike that is not being used, he is free to ride it to his next destination. The only stipulation is that the user is not allowed to lock the bike when he arrives at his destination so that the next person who sees the bike is free to use it.
The painted bike system is nice for unexpected trips, but does not work for daily commuting for a number of reasons. First, the bikes are usually heavy and poorly-maintained. Second, it is rare to find painted bikes on a reliable basis and the bikes are usually taken by another user by the time the original user returns. This forces the original rider to find alternative transportation for the return trip. Third, because painted bikes are free for the taking, they are quickly abused and eventually lost or stolen. A painted bike program, therefore, is a quaint idea with little practical use.
Municipal Deposit Systems
Looking for a way to make bike-sharing more practical, several northern European cities – led by Copenhagen and Amsterdam – began to experiment with infrastructure-supported programs in the 1990s. In these programs, the municipality – or another organization working in cooperation with the municipality – installs specially designed bikes and racks around the central city. Bikes can be borrowed for free, but users must pay a small deposit, which is returned when the bike is brought back to a proper rack.
Copenhagen’s free White Bikes program began in 1995 with 1,100 specially designed, durable bicycles and has grown ever since. Originally the organizers hoped to finance the program by selling advertising space on the bicycles. This idea didn’t pan out, so the municipality took over the administration of the program. To release bikes, users insert a $3 coin as a deposit into the specially-designed, but low-tech racks. (The deposit device is common on grocery shopping carts throughout Europe). The fine for not returning a bike is over $150 and the Copenhagen police enforce the fine if a cyclist is spotted outside of the bike-sharing zone.
This program has been popular and effective in many ways. Foremost among them is that Copenhageners and tourists know where the bikes can be found and can plan their travel around the use of a shared bike. The bikes lend themselves nicely to quick trips such as lunchtime errands that are too time-consuming for walking, but too quick to wait for transit. The free cost and absence of membership requirements (the only requirement being the $3 deposit coin) make it available to everyone. Finally, theft and loss of bikes are minor issues because of the locking bike racks and the use of a deposit. Because the bikes are custom-made with original parts, there is no noteworthy black market for stolen parts.
There are, however, limitations on the municipal deposit programs. Because the programs are free, there is no return on the capital invested by the municipality. In fact, capital must constantly be re-invested to keep the system in service and to replace missing bikes. This makes the prospect of expansion more difficult. Without expansion, the benefit of a bike-sharing program will always be somewhat limited to a specific market area. The small number of bike stations limits the number of locations where a bike can be returned as well. Because municipal deposit programs are not IT-based and do not contain tracking devices, the bikes must be designed as theft deterrents, which means that they are often very heavy, single-speed affairs not suitable for hilly cities.
Fueled by advances in IT and GPS technology, the most recent innovations in bike-sharing have helped the concept to gain immensely in popularity. These programs use technology including high-tech checkout and tracking systems as well as bicycle diagnostics to determine if a bike has low tire pressure or excessive chain wear. Built-in GPS devices make it easy to recover lost or stolen bicycles. Most importantly, the advances in new technology allow the program operators to charge a small fee for the use of high-quality bicycles, which makes it attractive to sponsors and investors.
There is a high level of capital investment required in IT-based programs, which is why these programs have been developed through creative financing arrangements. The best-known IT-based programs follow two models: The first model is an advertising-driven municipal service such as JCDecaux’s Vélo’V program in Lyon, France – one of Philadelphia’s Sister Cities. The second model is based on the extension of an existing transportation service like the German Railroad’s (DB) Call a Bike program.
Beginning in 2004, Lyon’s Vélo’V program revolutionized bike-sharing by making it a legitimate mode of public transportation. In fact, it is even tied into the public transit system’s fare structure. During a very quick rollout period, the program positioned over 2,000 bicycles at 175 racks across the city – in the “Coeur” and in the suburbs. There are plans to expand the system to 4,000 bicycles and 400 racks by the end of 2007.
Under the Vélo’V system, subscribers are given a smart card, which they can swipe at any of the computerized racks to release a bicycle. The user then rides the bike to his destination and returns it to the nearest rack, where a computer checks the tire pressure and chain wear. As soon as the diagnostics check has been run, the bike is ready to be used again. Vélo’V employs 30 people to promote the system, maintain the bikes and racks, and to position bicycles so that racks don’t go empty.
In just over two years of operation, the Lyon system has developed some impressive statistics:
- Each Vélo’V bicycle is used by an average of 15 people every day
- The average journey is 17 minutes or 1.7 miles
- Vélo’V users travel the equivalent of one trip around the world every day
Part of the reason that Vélo’V is so successful is the fare structure and access system. When you subscribe, you receive a smart card at a cost of either 1 Euro for one week’s access or 5 Euros for an entire year. The first 30 minutes of a ride are free to encourage the use of bicycles for short errands or for the end leg of a transit commute. After the grace period, it costs only 0.50 Euros for every half-hour. The best bargain, including an hour-long grace period, is reserved for transit pass holders who can upgrade their transit pass to include Vélo’V services.
The Vélo’V system is the result of a revolutionary funding and management arrangement. JCDecaux, one of the world’s largest billboard advertising and street furniture design firms, funded the project and provides the day-to-day operation through its Cyclocity subsidiary. In return for this service, JCDecaux has been granted the sole contract to install and sell the advertising space on Lyon’s transit shelters.
Philadelphia uses a similar ownership model for transit shelters. SEPTA’s bus shelters and other advertising space in the transportation infrastructure are owned by the city and regularly contracted out to private advertising providers such as Clear Channel and Viacom (JCDecaux is new to the US market). With SEPTA’s Regional Rail, Subway, Tram and Bus interconnections, and in that over ½ of Philadelphia’s topography is flat coupled with a desire to increase the exercise levels of the city’s population, it is reasonable to believe Philadelphia is the perfect location for a Vélo’V style program.
The Vélo’V program is successful because it utilizes new technology and innovative financing to propel the bike sharing concept into the league of practical public transportation. While the financing method is questionable to some and requires further study, the cost to the public is negligible. In Philadelphia, there is a strong movement to reduce the amount of visual pollution caused by rampant billboards and guerilla advertising. One benefit of contracting with a company like JCDecaux is that it would lead to consolidation and better regulation of advertising in the city.
There is also a question of whether Philadelphia streets are safe enough for an influx of bicycle users. The situation was fairly similar when Lyon began the Vélo’V program. While the city has made great strides in traffic calming and pedestrian amenities, bicycle infrastructure in French cities is still playing catch-up to German-speaking and northern European countries. However, the introduction of Vélo’V has led to a critical mass of cyclists on the streets of Lyon. In just two short years, cycling has gone from an alternative mode to a preferred mode of transportation in the city. In addition to the 1,500 Vélo’V bicycles, citizens are beginning to use their own bikes more often – contributing to the flood of cyclists in the city. People are realizing that it’s easiest to get around Lyon on a bike and drivers are more respectful of cyclists.
The Vélo’V system is now spreading to other cities in Europe. Vienna has been operating a smaller-scale version of the system for many years now. Paris successfully introduced the Vélib system on July 15th. Operated by JCDecaux and using the same technology as the Lyon system, Vélib began service with 10,000 bicycles and 750 racks. It has 20,600 bikes and 1450 stations. It is the largest of such systems in the world. Barcelona’s Bicing system started earlier this year with 1,500 bikes and 100 racks. Already, Bicing has over 30,000 subscribers. Brussels has started with a small, 23 rack Cyclocity program.
The final IT-based model of bike sharing is utilized by the German Railroad (DB). DB has recognized bike-sharing as a way to both extend the level of service provided to its passengers and as a new line of business that could be nurtured with DB capital and eventually spun-off. To date, DB operates its “Call a Bike” service in five cities: Berlin, Munich, Cologne, Frankfurt and Stuttgart. The bikes are stored during the winter months, which gives the staff an opportunity to inventory and maintain the fleet.
Call a Bike users dial a number on their cell phones to lock and unlock bicycles, which means that the bicycles are not tied to physical, computerized racks. Most bikes are initially positioned near transit stations, public squares and other attractions. Riders are allowed to use any “unlocked” bike within a specified zone in the city. These zones are usually correlated with transit fare zones or well-known ring streets. Every day, Call a Bike employees travel the city to relocate bicycles that are left in unpopular locations, which diminishes the value of the system to people who want to know where they can get a bicycle at all times.
Call a Bike is unique in that members can use the service in any of the cities it serves. The DB advertises the service as a logical extension to a journey on the country’s extensive rail and transit network. However, the price of Call a Bike service is relatively high due to the for-profit motivation of the railroad. While DB can afford the large sums of capital necessary to implement the program and justify the expense as an extension of its existing service, it does not receive any ancillary financial benefit like JCDecaux does with its advertising-based programs.