Bicycles, the most produced vehicles in the world[i], have been a part of urban mobility since the 19th century. While people have been using bicycles for their personal commutes – urban bicycling- traditionally, mass scale bike share programs are a more recent phenomenon.

A bike share scheme, at the core of it, is a stock of bicycles made accessible to people, free of cost or at a negligible cost of subscription and use, for the whole or a part of their commute. Typically, bicycles take negligible space on roads and are a faster and less cumbersome alternative to walking. They relieve the mass transport modes from short haul trips and provide access to streets, alleys, parks and pathways otherwise inaccessible to motorized transport modes. When implemented properly, a bike share scheme can have amazing outcomes in terms of:

Connectivity – Streets closed to cars, like Las Ramblas in Barcelona, receive manifold footfalls thanks to ‘Bicing’ bicycles

Reduced congestion- China has traditionally managed to move millions of people with limited road infrastructure, thanks to bicycles. No wonder, ‘Hangzhou Public Bicycle’ is the largest bike share system in the world

Safety perception– women in Paris feel safer navigating streets after dark on the popular ‘Velib’ bikes

Cultural embeddedness – Cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam cannot be perceived without their popular biking cultures, adding to the vitality of their urbanism,

And, contribution to multimodal systems- Bike share schemes are fundamentally conceived for last mile connectivity, thereby extending the reach of multimodal networks. That said, ‘Santander Cycles’ (formerly Barclays Cycle Hire) in London and similar systems have given evidence of higher instance of bus and public transport usage, driven by bicycle ridership. The London case demonstrates the network effect of bike share than it being, merely, a last mile solution.

Bike Shares, therefore, are an integral part of urban mobility and multimodal solutions.

History of Bike Shares

The first instance of sharing of bicycles can be traced back to Amsterdam in 1965s[ii]. The Witte Fietsen (literally white bikes) were a short lived social movement where citizens painted their bicycles in white colour and left them in the city for the use of others.

The next wave of bike sharing came in the Danish capital, Copenhagen, in form of ‘Bycyklen’ (city bicycles) in 1995. The scheme employed a coin based access control as a first.

Soon in 1996, Portsmouth university in the USA hosted ‘bikeabout’, a bike share system that used magnetic stripe cards for access control. The approach of magnetic cards/keys and RFID based docks was mainstreamed at city scale by Vélo à la Carte in Rennes, France in partnership with Clear Channel – an advertising company- in 1998.

Soon, more extensive systems came up in 2005-08 starting with Vélo’v , a partnership between JCDecaux (1500 bicycles at start) and City of Lyon in 2007. Mainstream implementations in Paris (6000 bikes at start, reaching 18000 in 2015), and Barcelona, made magnetic stripe/key based bike share systems popular. Bixi, the Montreal based bike share added additional robustness and scalability with its sturdy bicycles and modular docking stations. The Bixi company’s system got mainstreamed in London and Washington DC by 2010.

In 2013 New York managed to launch a bike share scheme fully funded by corporate money, setting a new standard in innovative funding of bike shares. 2013 also saw an alternative to/next generation of access control whereby GPS hardware were increasingly being installed on bicycles and smart phone based unlocking allowed bicycles to be secured in any bicycle rack, without the need of specialized docking stations.

More recently, Bixi went bankrupt in 2014, sold to new ownership. In 2015 the global stock of bike share bicycles in operation crossed 1 million bicycles.

Challenges of bike sharing and urban bicycling

Critical readers must have noticed three distinct trends in the evolution of bike sharing, above, namely:

Safety and control: Vandalism and thefts have been a constant problem with bicycles. Such was the extent of vandalism in Amsterdam in 1965 that it took 30 mores years for technology to enable the Copenhagen bike sharing scheme. Magnetic stripes, keys and credit cards are deterrents to such tendencies but even in recent times Paris saw mass destruction of public bicycles -80% or 16000 bicycles were lost to theft and vandalism in the first two years (2007-09) of Velib. Such was the extent of damage in Paris that London’s system was limited to Zone-1 of the city- the affluent neighborhoods with the highest density of street cameras in the world.

Costs and funding: Cities have often struggled to sustainably provide bike share scheme to their citizens. The advertising-partner model of the likes of JCDecaux and Barclays/Santander is heavily dependent on finding such partners and they seeing constant value in continuing with such a partnership. Collective corporate funding may be a more plausible solution, especially in business districts, but may not be possible in smaller agglomerations of corporates or predominantly residential towns (e.g. suburbs). The cost of equipment and docks is another challenge. Particularly the docking station based systems are often critiqued for the excessively costly infrastructure.

Limited use: Bike share schemes typically serve less than 2% of populations, even in the most popular city scale use cases, outside China. Low frequency of use limits revenue potential and network impacts. Moreover, most cities face the challenge of availability hotspots and vice versa, limiting the potential of use of such systems.

Finally, urban bicycling in general is a challenge in many cities of the world. Bicyclists often meet with accidents on roads, as they are made to compete for access with motorized traffic on roads. Bicycle tracks are far and few in many developed cities of the world and completely absent in most others. Road junction designs often don’t factor for the safety of bicyclists and pedestrians and in many cases the road surfaces are not maintained properly for stable bicycle rides. Many public transport systems don’t even allow foldable bicycles while some restrict full sized bicycles on board, limiting the multimodal trips on own bicycles. Many areas in cities, like urban parks, remain restricted for bicycling, forcing the bicyclists back on traffic filled roads.

What is the future of bike shares and urban bicycling?

As in the past, technology is opening newer avenues for bike sharing. Particularly the evolution of bicycles with GPS hardware has enabled bicycle level tracking as against the docking station based tracking in the past. While the immediate use case is that of easy location of stranded bicycles e.g. in Portland (OR), the real-time tracking can reveal actual user behavior and help do advanced predictions. Real time data can reveal alternatives to bicycle-motorized traffic conflicts by recording the preferred routes taken by bicyclists. The typical issues of non-availability of bicycles can be countered by real time alerts to the operator while users can be made more confident in the system by giving them accurate algorithmic predictions of bicycle locations and availability, not very differently from the prevalent taxi aggregator applications.

However, technology is only useful when it is used to its potential and intelligent inferences are drawn and used for improvements. With bike level tracking, it is now easier to isolate accident hot spots and to plan mitigations via road infrastructure improvements and electronic alerts to people. New and non-conflicting bicycle tracks can be found using GPS and GIS technologies, altogether allowing for urban planning that surgically rectifies any bottlenecks to bicycling.

The possibility of shunning costly docking stations with regular street bicycle racks has significantly reduced the capital costs of bike share schemes and with GPS tracking and smart phone integration, thefts can be further minimized, reducing the operation costs.

The true benefits of bike share schemes can be accurately attributed within the multimodal transport network given real time ticketing and location statistics and given the realization, costs can be seen in relation to the tangible benefits. One advantage of accurate data on benefits to transport networks and offsetting of car based trips is that bike share schemes and urban biking promotions can now be quantified for carbon credits and green/impact funding.

There is also scope for modern materials and engineering to further improve on the bicycle equipment itself. The Paris and London bike share bicycles weigh about 20 Kgs and it is difficult to negotiate terrains while riding them. Future bike share bicycles can incorporate weight saving technologies and electrical assist to make urban bicycling a smoother affair. Public transport can accommodate bicycles better and foldable bicycles can be made to quality levels of that of full scale bicycles, enabling a symbiotic relation between Public Transport and Bicycles.

Conclusion: How cities can build vibrant, safe and future ready bike shares?

Plan for urban bicycling first: Vancouver, otherwise a pioneer in multimodal transport and livability, finally launched its bike share scheme in 2016. This was done on the back of a long-standing practice of bicycles on board buses, well documented and developed bicycle lanes and most recently a full redesign of junctions to ensure bicyclist safety. While it is easy to install the modular bike share schemes in any city, the basics of bicycling infrastructure and safety ethos go a long way in sustaining the schemes.

Image: Bike Sharing / Shutterstock

Involve local communities: In many pioneering bicycling cities of the world, bike share schemes came on top of thriving bicycling cultures and social networks. Bicyclists know the cities best from the view point of bicycling and can help design cycling paths, technology interfaces and infrastructure.

Leverage technology and data: As the technology, has evolved, many cities have found unique ways to counter the challenges illustrated in this article. Each city is unique and so are its problems, though. The only way to solve for unique cases is by opening data from the very beginning and approaching operational problems with an agile and problem solving mindset.

Assume a broader outlook on costs and funding: While some cities have bagged mega contracts with advertisers and consortium of corporates, not all cities can generate enough funding through such methods and may require public funding. Moreover, the costs must be seen in relation to the benefits of bike share schemes. A data and evidence based approach will help justify costs to the exchequer and enhance benefits by reinforcing the positive externalities. A data based approach can be used for claiming carbon credits and impact funding as additional means to fund bike share schemes.

About the author: Rajarshi Rakesh Sahai is a Strategy consultant with specialization in Urban Planning and Smart Cities. He is the India Director and Country Manager for TRAFI Ltd.

[i] The Chinese Flying Pigeon alone went past 500 million bicycles produced by 2007. Koeppel, Dan (January–February 2007), "Flight of the Pigeon"BicyclingRodale, Inc., vol. 48 no. 1, pp. 60–66, ISSN 0006-2073, retrieved 2012-01-28