Bike-Sharing: 2011 State of the European Union report

As regular readers of World Streets by now know well, we consider bicycles as the mine canaries of sustainable transport and sustainable cities. When you can hear them singing, everything is going pretty much in the right direction. But silence or absence, and hey you are in deep trouble. As part of our long-term watching brief under our free-for-all World City Bike Collaborative since 2005, we try to keep track of what is going on both at the leading and the lagging edge with both bikes and infrastructure, and public bicycle systems, in all parts of the world, from China and Africa, to Paris and Portland.

Here is a very useful piece of work on bike-sharing in Europe that has just been issued by the Choice Mobility group in Germany working with a phalanx of partners in the context of an EU sponsored collaborative program: In the following article we introduce the report and summarize its main policy recommendations. For the full report, all you need to do is click here.

Optimising Bike Sharing in European Cities:
A handbook

OBIS – The Handbook in Brief

Three years research on more than 50 bike sharing schemes in ten European countries, visualised in 27 tables and 73 figures, results and recommendations summarised on around 100 pages: That is the OBIS handbook, the final product of the most comprehensive research project on bike sharing schemes in Europe thus far.

The handbook presents facts and figures from the world of bike sharing. Scheme characteristics such as technology, scheme size, service design etc. are described in connection with external factors of the cities. Finally the handbook gives comprehensive advice for all three stages in the lifetime of a BSS: Planning, Implementation, Optimisation.

The handbook is intended to serve local, regional and central governments involved in traffic issues, bike sharing providers and other companies and organisations related to bike sharing (such as providers of street furniture, outdoor advertisers, municipal parking operators), public transport operators, urban planners and cycling organisations.

The handbook is now available in English. Other languages and free print versions will be available at the end of August. The handbook can downloaded for free on the website of the OBIS project – here.

Policy Recommendations

Even though bike sharing is a relatively new phenomenon, it is already becoming an important means of urban transport in many cities all over the world. The reasons for implementing a BSS and the benefits are diverse and differ according to the perspective of the stakeholder.

The following findings give a general framework for the improvement of existing and upcoming BSSs.

1.1 National Level

1. Bike sharing initiatives need national support
With the increase in systems on the market, knowledge about BSSs grows in places where the systems have been implemented, but this knowledge is not automatically transferred to cities without a BSS. Therefore it is essential to share experiences and knowledge. Cities and municipalities can learn from each other. Therefore, national discussion and information forums with the support of national transport and urban development ministries should be created.

2. Develop funding instruments
Grants can help in implementing BSSs. They can help to cover high infrastructure investments or part of the running costs, especially in smaller cities. However, a critical view of the costs and outcomes of the BSS is necessary. Therefore, grant funded schemes should be monitored and evaluated.

3. Include bike sharing in (national) transport strategies
BSSs are not the panacea for urban and regional transport problems. To unlock their full potential, they must be embedded in a comprehensive cycling and transport strategy. Cycling infrastructure, bike sharing, communication campaigns, PT strategies, and planning for roads and parking should all go hand in hand.

1.2 Municipal Level

1. Define general aims and objectives of the scheme for your town
In principle, what are your reasons for setting up the scheme? What and who is it for? BSSs exist for many different purposes in different contexts and have various direct and indirect benefits (Table 1), depending on local mobility policies, so before you start it is important to define: the immediate problems you hope to solve and the long-term or indirect benefits you hope to achieve.

2. Set up a bike sharing task force
The first step on the way towards implementing a BSS is to pool skills within the municipality. A bike sharing ‘task force’ should incorporate both practical and administrative skills. Practitioners and experts in the field of bike sharing (that are not involved with an operator) also help to discuss the opportunities and limits of a BSS for the city/region.

3. Set up a ‘round table’
All stakeholders involved in the process should participate from an early stage. People involved in a ‘round table’ should come from the decision making, planning, legal, budgeting, communication and operations departments. Externals such as consultants, students, practitioners from other BSSs can help to explore local opportunities and give an unbiased, external point of view.

4. Involve operators
Make use of the know-how of the operators. They know about technical developments that are about to become available. They know how the operational aspects work. Operators’ know-how is useful for tenders and feasibility studies. However, the view of an unbiased expert is necessary to assess operators’ information.

5. Analyse requirements and define indicators of success
A professional feasibility study analysing other systems, cataloguing local conditions, drafting different scenarios and analysing future operational figures, should be the foundation for a later decision.

6. Look for funding options
Analyse federal or regional funding to get support for infrastructure or operation. Involving third parties such as local companies or hotels can strengthen the financial foundation, but should never be the only source of funding.

7. Set a milestone for a decision: yes or no
Once all the figures have been collected and relevant stakeholders’ opinions heard, there should be a clear and unanimous ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The more relevant stakeholders are convinced about the BSS at this stage, the less time and energy will get lost during planning and implementation.

8. Buy smart
The combination of bike sharing and advertising, as well as buying ‘off the shelf systems’2 might appear easy at first glance. However, the option of buying single components can be feasible and should be considered. In any case, every municipality should define individual requirements for its BSS.

9. Get it right the first time
Small pilot systems, e.g. with a low density of stations, tend to fail. The BSS becomes more attractive, the denser the scheme, the better the daily availability, and the larger the operating range is. Therefore the dimensions should be well chosen from the start. However, pilot schemes do have benefits. They are cheap; they can test the technology and establish people’s attitudes towards BSSs based on their actual experience of using a scheme. Pilots should be directed to a dedicated test group.

10. Make your scheme unique
Results from different European cities show that good individual design of a BSS contributes to success. Design elements include the bike itself (colour, city logo), the stations, the terminals and communication materials. However, there is no need to design a scheme from scratch. Existing schemes usually offer a good technical and operational basis with opportunities to adapt.

11. Be aware: knowledge is power
Good knowledge of system performance and costs is the key to success. Therefore, in the initial call for tenders to potential operators, municipalities should include monitoring, reporting and sharing of data with the operator before the contract is signed.

12. Allow yourself to be honest about costs and benefits
After the first operation-period, the figures should be analysed in depth. If they vary from expectations in a negative way, thinking about spending the money in a more productive way should be considered. In the worst case this might mean that the BSS budget is better spent on other cycling measures. Nevertheless, experience shows that most systems do have the potential to work properly.

Arguments You’ll Have to Deal With

When discussing bike sharing, several arguments or constraints come up regularly. The most common ones are listed below.

The city already has a high cycling modal share; people have their own bikes.
Bike sharing is an additional option for intermodal transport. Even though people use their own bikes, bike sharing can be used as a flexible means of transport for short trips and before or after PT rides, without the need for maintenance, or risk of theft or vandalism.

BSSs are expensive.
There is room for improvement in terms of costs, but bike sharing is still relatively inexpensive compared to other infrastructure and transport measures (such as car infrastructure and PT). As the market for BSS equipment matures, the costs will also decrease. When evaluating the costs and outcomes of a BSS, positive external effects of the scheme must be considered and compared with other measures competing for the same financial resources.

The city is too small and does not have enough funding options.
Even in small cities with up to 100,000 inhabitants, BSSs can be a useful addition to existing means of transport. PT is often not as well developed as in larger cities. BSSs can therefore be a complement or a substitute for PT. Funding can be obtained with the help of local sponsors, labour market initiatives and social organisations.

A BSS will compete with local bike rental companies.
There are measures to prevent this scenario. The most common options are progressive charges, that increase the longer you use the bikes, or to exclude tourists from the local BSS by only allowing residents to register (as for example in Barcelona). Another option is to involve local bike rental companies in the operation of the BSS.

The city does not even have proper cycling infrastructure. The BSS a) will compete for funding and b) nobody will use the BSS due to the lack of infrastructure.

BSSs should always be combined with other cycling measures. A cycling strategy should therefore comprise infrastructure (such as cycle paths, safe cycle parking stands), choices on infrastructure use, (like bike access to one-way streets, car-parking policy), support for initiatives that encourage cycling (led by user-groups, schools or employers) and communication measures that encourage cycling and other sustainable mobility options. Nevertheless, a BSS can serve as an initial boost for cycling as a daily transport option (like it has in Paris, Lyon, Barcelona and London) which creates a demand for additional cycling infrastructure investments requiring decisions on provision and spending.

Cycling is dangerous; a BSS will increase the number of accidents
The safety of cycling very much depends on the quality of cycling infrastructure and the level of cycling in a city. Car drivers are much more aware of cyclists when they see more cyclists on the streets. Typical experiences (such as Stockholm and Berlin) are that very high increases in cycling have not been coupled with higher accident rates, even in absolute numbers. Thus, a BSS can contribute to making cycling safer. Additionally, safety aspects of cycling should always be measured in ‘accidents per cycle trip’ and not in ‘number of accidents’. Finally, studies show that the health benefits of cycling largely outweigh the risks. Nevertheless, accident risks should be taken seriously and measures be taken to minimise them through, for example, information campaigns targeting cyclists, but in particular also motorists.

All the trips will be one-way; there will be a distribution problem
Redistribution is needed in all BSSs and the experience of existing schemes is useful in this respect. Thus it is important to analyse traffic flows before and after implementation and after that to optimise station planning, not only in terms of mobility needs, but also in terms of the redistribution capacity of the system. Smart algorithms for redistribution planning help optimise redistribution by assigning priorities to the respective stations. Not every empty station needs to be filled (e.g. when it is not usually used during the night).

Additionally the use of zero-emission vehicles helps reduce the negative impact that redistribution has on the climate.

Bike sharing will compete about street space, parking, pavements etc.
Bikes help make localities accessible with the potential to reduce congestion and promote health. It is therefore in the interest of the citizens that they are provided with the necessary means to start cycling. For groups with special needs, disabled, elderly, children etc.; and the transport sector (e.g. within retail deliveries), special arrangements like dedicated parking and time slots, are always possible.

* To read the full report, click here.

* For more on the group leading this project, click here.
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Here are a couple of additional sources that you may wish to check out by way of further background and perspective:

1. World Streets reports on public bicycle projects worldwide – here

2. The Bike-sharing World Map – here. Also see Paul Demaio’s The Bike-sharing Blog.

3. NICHES Report on Public Bicycles (2006)

4. World City Bike Collaborative – Including the forum here. And the Facbook Groups page here.

2 thoughts on “Bike-Sharing: 2011 State of the European Union report

  1. Cycling is something everyone should be able to do and the bike is a device of infinite flexibility and efficiency. But bike sharing does not a sustainable city make.

    I have thought long and hard about this as I ride in the rain, snow, cold and wind as well as the all too short summer. I hate to admit it but it seems unavoidable. Consider four things:
    1) Bike share projects by and large reduce walking, not car driving.
    2) Many new bike-aware cities have been introducing infrastructure and bike sharing without also changing behaviour or educating the population, leading to deep divisions borne out of prejudice and ignorance.
    3) Too many new cyclists take a moral righteousness along with their lack of skill and create dangers that encourage ignorant drivers to lump all people on two wheels into an itinerant, anarchic and alien group.
    4) For every successful shared space I imagine there are twenty where pedestrians have effectively abandoned it leaving only the young, agile or indifferent to walk amongst the riders.

    I cycle everywhere, I love bikes, but firmly believe the measure of a sustainable city is the number of people walking not the number riding. One day we will find an answer to the problems, bikes are part of the answer Northern Europe has dangled the carrot, but in the UK and North America we need to acknowledge that cyclists may never fully integrate into our auto-cities – especially after so much neglect.

    • Thanks for those good comments Adrian. In fact I could have a real conversation with you on each of your points, but that will have to be for another day. What is most important is that you are riding, thinking and sharing at the same time. Now all we need to do now is to multiply that by 7 billion and hey! many of our worst woes will just evaporate. Kind regards/Eric Britton


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