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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.