In the 1960s, a Dutchman named Luud Schimmelpennink created a ‘”white bike” plan to fight against harmful pollution and cars. His invention has changed public transportation around the world. So why did his bicycle-loving home city never embrace it?
Source: Renate van der Zee, The Guardian, adapted by Newsela staff. With thanks.
Take a look around most of the world’s cutting-edge cities, and you’re likely to see someone riding a bike they don’t own. A system of color-coded bicycles meant for public use might sound like a new, eco-friendly way of getting around. But about 50 years ago, Amsterdam’s Witte Fietsenplan – the “white bicycle plan” – was the first of its kind.
The plan began as just another wild project by Provo, a well-known group of Dutch anarchist – that is, anti-government – activists. Provo wanted to cause a fuss and change Dutch society. But eventually their idea would revolutionize public transport around the world.
Anarchists Inspired By The 17th Century
In 1965, in the middle of Amsterdam, Provo activists painted a small number of used bikes white. The white bicycles were left unlocked around the city, to be used by anyone. It was Provo’s answer to the problems of air pollution and greed.
“I was inspired by what happened in 17th-century Amsterdam,” explained engineer Luud Schimmelpennink. The inventor of the Witte Fietsenplan is now a lively senior with sharp blue eyes under bushy eyebrows. He still lives – and bikes – in the Dutch capital.
In those days, Schimmelpennink said, Amsterdam had doubled in size in a relatively short time. The streets were blocked by all the carriages trying to get through. So the city set up “carriage squares” where people could park their carriage, allowing them to walk through town. That was what Provo wanted: to make people leave their cars behind and continue by white bike.
How Trying To Change The World Changed Public Transport
“We were young and we thought we could change the world,” said Sara Stolk-Duijs, who was involved in Provo as a teenager. “The white bike was a statement against the growing number of cars, which was a real problem in Amsterdam. The city simply couldn’t deal with all that traffic. It polluted the air and children couldn’t safely play in the streets anymore.”
Stolk-Duijs even got married on a white bike, which caused a sensation in her hometown of Zaandam. Her husband took his grandfather’s old bike, painted it white and rode it to the town hall, where the couple were met by fellow Provo members.
The Witte Fietsenplan may have attracted plenty of attention, but it was short-lived. The free white bikes were quickly removed by the police, who disliked Provo’s anarchist activities. But for Schimmelpennink, and for bike-share schemes, this was just the beginning.
“The first Witte Fietsenplan was just a symbolic thing,” he says. “We painted a few bikes white, that was all.”
Ride-Sharing Before Uber And Zipcar
Schimmelpennink became a member of the Amsterdam city council two years later. He developed a larger-scale Witte Fietsenplan.
Schimmelpennink’s plan called for Amsterdam’s city government to distribute 10,000 white bikes for everyone to use. According to his calculations, providing the white bicycles would cost Amsterdam only 10 percent of what it paid for public transport per person per kilometer.
The council unanimously rejected the plan. “They said that the bicycle belongs to the past. They saw a glorious future for the car,” Schimmelpennink said. “I said, ‘You people don’t understand the power of this system. It’s a form of individual public transport. But if you want, I can do the same with cars.’”
He went on to develop a system for sharing small electric cars, known as Witkarren. He had a chance to test the idea in 1974, but with only one station and four electric cars. To be able to use a witkar, a person needed to become a member and pay for each mile they drove. The whole thing functioned on an early computer system.
“It was a miracle we were able to pull it off,” Schimmelpennink said. “In the beginning, the police would drive behind the witkarren to see if anything would go wrong. At night we would park the cars in a church, because we were afraid they would be stolen.”
For the witkarren system to work, there needed to be at least 25 stations, and in the end, the program couldn’t afford to build them all. But there were witkarren on the streets for 10 years, according to Schimmelpennink – proof that a car-sharing system was a workable idea.
Copenhagen’s Coin-Operated System
Schimmelpennink never stopped believing in bike sharing either, and in the mid 90s, two Danes asked for his help to set up a system in Copenhagen. The result was the world’s first large-scale bike-share program. Riders would drop a coin in the bike, which they would get back after the bike was returned. Unfortunately, Schimmelpennink said, many bikes wound up stolen.
After setting up the Danish system, Schimmelpennink decided to try his luck again in the Netherlands – and this time, he piqued the interest of the Dutch Ministry of Transport. “Times had changed,” he said. “People had become more environmentally conscious.”
Amsterdam Test Pilots New White Bikes
A new Witte Fietsenplan was launched in 1999 in Amsterdam. Riding a white bike was no longer free of charge. Riders paid with a chip card developed by Postbank, a Dutch bank. Schimmelpennink designed easy-to-spot sturdy, white bikes locked in special racks which could be opened with the chip card. The plan started with 250 bikes distributed over five stations.
Theo Molenaar, a system designer for the project, said he enjoyed working with Schimmelpennink, who was “full of ideas and always one step ahead.”
“I remember when we were testing the bike racks, [Schimmelpennink] announced that he had already designed better ones,” he said. “But of course, we had to go through with the ones we had.”
The system, however, was plagued with vandalism and theft. “After every weekend there would always be a couple of bikes missing,” Molenaar said. “I really have no idea what people did with them, because they could instantly be recognized as white bikes.”
But the biggest blow came when Postbank decided to stop producing the chip cards, saying that they weren’t profitable. “That chip card was pivotal to the system,” Molenaar said. “To continue the project we would need to set up another system, but the business partners lost interest.”
The Witte Fietsenplan Goes Global
Schimmelpennink was disappointed, but not for long. In 2002, he got a call from the French advertising company JC Decaux, who wanted to set up his bike-sharing scheme in Vienna. After some successes, the program expanded to Lyon, France – and then to Paris.
The Parisian bike-sharing program was a huge and unexpected success, and now includes more than 20,000 bicycles. It inspired cities all over the world to set up their own bike-sharing schemes, all modeled on Schimmelpennink’s. He hadn’t patented his idea and so didn’t earn money from it, but he still said the program’s spread was “wonderful.”
By the end of 2014, the number of shared bikes in the world amounted to almost one million. China led the charts with more than 750,000 shared bikes in 237 cities, followed by France with almost 43,000 bikes in 38 cities. Britain was seventh highest with almost 11,000 bikes. Recently, the Dutch city of Rotterdam announced its latest Witte Fietsenplan, this time using more than 450 electric bicycles and 20 stations. It is set to begin operation in 2017.
THANK YOU LUUD: By early Marc 2017 the world counted approximately 2,650,000 public bicycles riding the streets of 1,232 cities on all continents. (Source: The Bike-sharing World Map at www.bikesharingmap.com)
Why Borrow What You Already Own?
Now, 38 percent of all trips are made by bike in Amsterdam. Along with Copenhagen, it is thought to be one of the two most cycle-friendly capitals in the world. But Amsterdam never got another Witte Fietsenplan. “I guess the reason why it never worked out is that everybody in Amsterdam already has a bike,” Molenaar said.
Schimmelpennink disagreed, saying that people who ride the subway don’t usually bring their bike with them, but they still need a way to get around above-ground.
“I really think it’s strange and unreasonable that Amsterdam doesn’t have a proper bike-sharing system,” he said. “In the 60s we didn’t stand a chance because people were prepared to give their lives to keep cars in the city. But that mentality has totally changed. Today everybody longs for cities that are not dominated by cars.”
At 80 years of age, Schimmelpennink is still active – and still hopeful. The godfather of bike-sharing is currently working on a new system of shared electric cars that will connect the Amsterdam Hermitage with the Van Gogh and Stedelijk museums. He has already found a business partner.
“I have always had a passion for progress,” he says. “So I am giving it one more try. It would be great if I could make this work before I die.”
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More on grassroots support for Luud’s outstanding contributions
* World Streets: The Politics of Transport in Cities https://goo.gl/42JSQ6
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* Direct mail for campaign:ThanksLuud@ecoplan.org
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About Luud Schimmelpennink:
Dutch social inventor, industrial designer, entrepreneur and politician, since the mid 1960s Luud Schimmelpennink has been active in creating new low-carbon products and projects, with special focus on sustainable transportation concepts. His work aims to both reducing the number of conventional motor cars in urban areas for environmental and public health reasons, and provide people with viable alternative means of getting around in the city. Luud is the person who set the pattern for free (shared) city bike projects in Amsterdam back in the sixties. And if most of his original White Bicycles eventually disappeared, his example blazed the way to more work and thought, bringing us to where we are today. In 2006 he was elected again to the Amsterdam Municipal Council, and is currently working on a new WitKar-type project for Amsterdam as well as continuing to promote community cycles in Amsterdam and elsewhere. Luud is Managing Director of the Ytech Innovation Centre in Amsterdam
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About the author:
9, rue Gabillot, 69003 Lyon France
Bio: Britton is an American political scientist and sustainability activist who has lived and worked in Paris since 1969. Professor of Sustainable Development, Economy and Democracy at the Institut Supérieur de Gestion (Paris), he is also MD of EcoPlan Association, an independent advisory network providing strategic counsel for government and business on policy and decision issues involving complex systems, social-technical change and sustainable development. Founding editor of World Streets, his latest book, "BETTER CHOICES: Bringing Sustainable Transport to Your City" focuses on the subject of environment, equity, economy and efficiency in city transport and public space, and helping governments to ask the right questions. A pre-publication edition of Better Choices is currently undergoing an international peer review during Sept.- Oct. 2017, with the goal of publication in English and Chinese editions by end-year. If you wish to participate drop a line to BetterChoices@ecoplan.org .