Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Bike Sharing: a Boon or Bust?

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Over the last year or two, there has been a lot of hubbub about bike sharing due mainly to the massive system launched in 2007 in Paris, Velib. Now bike sharing is sweeping across Central and Eastern Europe, with systems already launched in Krakow, Bucharest, Ploieste (Romania) and Prague and plans or studies underway in Warsaw, Wroclaw and right here in Budapest.

I guess you have to be suspicious of anything that gets fashionable, as fashions fade. Bike sharing has always been a difficult proposition due to theft and vandalism, and although smart-card technology has mediated the problem, it's not a cure-all, as experience in Paris demonstrates.

In this region, as I argued in a recent article, we might be jumping into bike-sharing prematurely. In some cities, there's a basic need for safe places to ride, and if that isn't sorted out first, bike sharing could be a non-starter.

During a December visit to Bucharest, I learned that this is a concern for the Cicloteque sytem launched just last summer. With just 50 km of paths and an otherwise hostile environment for cyclists, Bucharest saw little use of the system during its first few months. Interest at the university-based service picked up somewhat when students returned to class in the fall, but it fell off drastically as soon as the weather turned cold. Cicloteque's been shuttered for winter as organisers seek a replacement for the original corporate sponsor, Unicredit Bank.

I won't say that bike sharing can never serve as a starting point, though. In Barcelona, for instance, the huge Bicing scheme launched in 2007 seems to have singlehandedly created a lively urban cycling culture where one hadn't existed.

I believe Budapest is a rare city in this region that is actually ripe for it (and any other cycling promotion measures). By now, there are scores of examples to examine around the world (see map), and Budapest will have to take care to find the most successful approaches in comparable contexts.


anna said...

I think it really depends on the planning whether such a system works. In Vienna the "Citybike" started out in 2003 (, but it still doesn't work as well as in Paris and other cities. Actually "Viennabike" started out in 2002, but they had big problems with vandalism and theft. Luckily they thought about a new concept and started out again hosted by Gewista (to sell the ad space on the bikes). But I asked myself many times why nobody ever talks about Citybikes in Vienna, but mostly about Velib in Paris, although our bike rental system is much older. I think the answer is quite simply: in Paris there are far more stations and far more bikes. I don't know about the difference in the quality of the bikes, but I don't think it matters that much. Although the system is set up in Vienna for so many years now we only have 60 stations (750 in Paris, even Barcelona has already got more than 370!), and most of them are within the wider center. Most people live outside of that though. And if somebody has to get a subway or tram first, before they can use the bike, it's not worth changing anymore. And although the city always claims how ecology-minded they are they hardly invest any money to really set up a bike rental system that could work many times better. I think, the system in Vienna is stuck due to lack of investment, aimlessness and political willpower. And that's really sad. But if you have all that, I think it can work much better ;-).

Greg Spencer said...

Thanks for the comment, Anna. I'm aware of Vienna's system and knew it pre-dated Velib by several years.

Interesting that you say 60 stations doesn't give the necessary saturation to make for a useful system. The bike sharing schemes in Prague, Krakow and Bucharest are much smaller than that -- all around 100 bikes and about a dozen stations each.

A lot of experts say high saturation is key. But I don't think very many have accomplished this.

dalos said...

The stations in Vienna are much less densely placed (800m)than that of Paris or Barcelona(300m). There are 1200 stations in paris(1451 according to other sources).