Monday, November 10, 2008

Bicycle Sharing Takes Off In Europe

by Elisabeth Rosenthal
The New York Times
November 9, 2008

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.

Read more here.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

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