At last years United States Conference of Mayors, the forum concluded:
“communities that have invested in pedestrian and bicycle projects have benefited from improved quality of life, healthier population, greater local real-estate values, more local travel choices, and reduced air pollution.” (Economist)
Can the country of Henry Ford and eight lane highways really be on the verge of embracing the bicycle? Well words are one thing, action on the ground is another. But, in the past few decades, there has been a remarkable growth in the number of bike sharing schemes across the world.
Generally bike sharing schemes didn’t get off to the best start. Cities like Amsterdam and Cambridge which offered free bikes, typically saw the noble endeavour of offering 500 free bikes taken up mainly by bike thieves who promptly stole the bikes, leaving only good intentions and critics claiming vindication bike sharing could never work.
However, since then there has been a steady evolution of bike sharing schemes. With better technology and good administration enabling bike sharing schemes to have varying degrees of success. It is no longer a fringe idea of cycling nuts. American mayors are looking to embrace these eye-catching (and possibly vote winning) schemes. Cities with bike sharing schemes have not exactly gone Dutch, there is no cycling nirvana; but t in cities which have really embraced the bike sharing idea, there is a noticeable shift in cycling rates.
The growth of bicycle sharing schemes
One of the first bike sharing schemes was tried by Amsterdam in 1965, 500 free white bikes left around the city. But, this was not the most auspicious start. Bikes tended to soon disappear, and the scheme was later abandoned. Though, it is worth noting that this was a period where Amsterdam and the Netherlands saw a resurgence in cycling rates.
- In the 1990s, some cities tried more serious bike sharing schemes. Denmark saw several cities pilot bike sharing schemes, with considerable success. Since 2000, there has been something of an explosion of interest. In 2000, just 6 countries had bike sharing schemes, by 2013, this has grown to 48 – and the number is set to grow.
- In the last two years alone, the growth has been significant. Between May 2011 and April 2013, it is estimated the number of bike-sharing programmes around the world grew from 375 schemes to 535. The total number of bikes involved rising from 236,000 to 5170,000.
Perhaps the most influential bike sharing schemes were in the French cities of Lyon and Paris. Despite hosting the Tour de France, the culture of cycling in cities was at a low ebb in France, with only a small % of journeys being made by bike. The Paris Velo scheme was notable for its extent and number of bikes involved. It managed to create a critical mass of bikes, docking stations and publicity to attract a growing number of users. Paris Velo has the highest number of bikes per inhabitant (1 in 97) in the world. By its sixth anniversary, a total of 173 million journeys were reported, and a doubling of the number of people cycling in Paris.
Paris is notoriously congested and motorists have not been overjoyed at having more bikes on the road, but Paris does have a goal of reducing car journeys by 40% by 2020, and bicycles are part of the soultion
Evidence over the critical mass of cycling and safety is mixed, but in Paris, Decaux argue that bicycle accidents in Paris only rose 7% compared with a 24 % increase in bicycle use during the first year. Decaux argued:
“Bicycles become fashionable, and the more bikes there are in a city, the safer it is, and the more the city will give space to bicyclists,”
The main drawback of the Paris experiment was that vandalism and theft proved higher than expected. An estimated 15% of bikes went missing, leading the Paris council to have to offer subsidy to the Decaux advertising company to compensate for losses. The other drawback was tending to have a shortage of bikes on the top of hills. People wanted the ride down, but were not so keen on riding the 22kg bikes up them.
Inspired by Paris, London was the next major capital city to take on the cycle hire programme. Generally it has been well received and has contributed to the growth in cycling rates in London. ( London cycle rates saw a 110% growth between 2000 and 2012. )
Whilst there has always been a culture of cycling in Europe, the US has lagged behind, with one of the lowest rates of cycling in the developed world. However, bucking this trend, several major cities, such as New York, Oklahamo, and San Jose have adopted a scheme. Other cities like Los Angeles have schemes in progress. Though some of the more eccentrically conservative Americans see cycle hire as some kind of dastardly socialist plot, cycle hire use in Manhatten has been embraced by a wide social mix, including well paid professionals.
Cycle Hire changing the culture of cycling?
Cycle hire schemes have been a relative success. More than anything they have led to increased cycle use and made cycle provision in major cities an important political issue. Since the Second World War, bicycle use has often been marginalised, but cycle hire schemes have been a factor in bringing bicycle use back on to the agenda for sustainable transport issues. It helps that cycle use also contributes to other major issues facing cities, notably – pollution and congestion.
Optimists may hope that growing cycle use will lead to a positive spin offs. More cycle users lead over time to more political pressure for better cycling facilities. If cities are able to improve basic cycling infrastructure, there is a real possibility other cities may start to see the kind of cycle rates that are currently only enjoyed by a few cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam. Furthermore as more people start to cycle, there is the hope that the critical mass of cyclists will change perceptions and make drivers more aware of the presence of cyclists on the roads.
Less optimistic critics argue that cycle hire schemes can be well intentioned, but not a solution to the main problem – which remains a lack of safe and viable cycle lanes. For example, London cycle campaigners regularly criticise the capital’s bike lanes as essentially being little more than putting paint on the road. Putting up a few docking stations and bikes, doesn’t on its own make cycling any safer.
Also, there is a big divergence in the type of scheme adopted. Really successful cities like Paris have an extensive number of docking stations, other cities are experimenting with just a small number.
The remarkable feature about cycle hire schemes is their explosion in popularity in the past 10-20 years. From being limited to a few cities in Asia and Europe, few would have predicted the growth of cycle hire schemes across the world (especially US). Since the schemes are still fairly young, it will take time for a culture of cycling to be more firmly embedded in the cities. Cycle hire schemes are not a panacea, but they are an important step to promoting a cycling culture within a city. It remains to be seen whether the growth in cycle hire schemes continues, and also whether they can be sufficiently resourced to make them attractive to people who don’t currently cycle. But, even the most pessimistic cycling advocate has to admit the growth in number of schemes is a positive step.