Is your town ready for bike-sharing?

 By RP Siegel

Bike-sharing is a new phenomenon that is sweeping through cities across the globe. Concerns ranging from frustration with traffic, smog, climate change and personal fitness has brought cycling into prominence as a legitimate form of transportation. Logistical concerns and reluctance to own a bike had held back bike usage in the past. But now, mobile-friendly bikeshare apps allow walkers to become bikers with a few swipes on a smartphone. RP Siegel takes a look at bike share programs and sees how it’s grown and what kind of impact it is expected to have…

(Cover photo by

Bicycle ridership is on the rise, particularly in cities around the world. Among the reasons for this are the desire to avoid traffic jams on increasingly crowded streets, difficulty parking, concerns over pollution and climate change, cost of operating an automobile, and the desire for physical fitness. According to the League of American Bicyclists, bicycle ridership in the US has increased an average of 62% in the period from 2000-2013. In bicycle-friendly communities, the increase has been 105%.

What makes a community bicycle-friendly? According to the League, it come down to what they call the five E’s. These are: Engineering, Education, Encouragement, Enforcement and Evaluation/Planning.

The engineering boils down to a “Complete Streets” policy, which includes things like bike lanes, speed limits, bike racks, bike-friendly intersections, integration with public transportation and more.

Education applies to both cyclists and motorists, though the emphasis is on teaching bike-safety to riders which includes route planning, helmet fitting and traffic skills.

Encouragement includes special activities meant to promote cycling, such as bike to work week, or bicycle month. Then there are events like Open Streets, where streets are closed to motor vehicles to encourage human-powered transportation. Ottawa closes off sections of parkways on Sunday mornings and Portland has Pedalpalooza, a festival of organized rides and other bike-related events that both celebrate and encourage cycling.

Enforcement means local traffic laws that are protective of cyclists including vigorous implementation of those laws.

Detroit bike-share

Evaluation/Planning refers to the way that cycling is integrated into the vision of the city and the operation of the city government. Bicycle Advisory Committees work closely with city government and biking hazards and accident statistics are studied and responded to.

One key factor behind the recent surge in bike ridership has been the advent of bike-sharing programs. This is due to one primary reason: flexibility. Bringing your own bike on an excursion is a commitment which can limit your options. Having your bike with you is great until suddenly it isn’t, like when someone wants you to go with them in their small car, or if it starts to rain, or if you need to bring a large item with you on your return trip. Then there are those times when plans change, or when you are visiting another city where it wasn’t convenient to bring your bike.

According to Metrobike’s Bike-sharing blog, there have been over 71 million trips on public bikes since 2008. Clearly the relationship between bike friendly communities and bike sharing programs is a synergistic one. Bike-sharing suppliers look for bike-friendly cities to set up shop in, and cities that are trying to increase bike ridership often look to bike-sharing as a way to do so.

Bike sharing was first introduced in Amsterdam in 1964. White-painted bikes were made freely available to the public, but with no accountability, the program soon collapsed. The modern bike sharing trend sprang from Amsterdam’s second attempt in 1995 which utilized a magnetic stripe card to track rentals. The concept grew slowly, but the successful Velo’v program in Lyons helped accelerate the trend in 2005. Paris soon followed suit.

Today, bike sharing is booming as is the sharing economy on the whole. There are, in general, three different types of bike sharing programs: those run by cities, those run by private businesses (usually in multiple cities) and those run as peer-to-peer programs.


While bike-sharing in Europe is old news, the largest bike share program is run by the city of Hangzhou, China, which boasts over 70,000 bikes and close to 3,000 stations. In the US, New York’s Citibike, Washington’s Capital Bikeshare and Chicago’s Divvy are among the biggest and best, along with Austin’s B-cycle and Nice Ride Minnesota in the Twin Cities.

The way they work is largely similar with some variation in implementation and features. Bikes are locked up in racks that can be unlocked electronically with the help of a mobile app. GPS systems keep track of the bikes and the system automatically registers when the bike is returned.

Social Bicycles was founded five years ago. They currently have around 4,000 bikes in their network, which consists of 23 cities in the US, and is just beginning to expand into Europe and Australia. Here’s how their program works in a nutshell: You use the mobile app to locate and reserve a bike. Once you reach the bike, you tap in your 4-digit PIN number on the bike’s keypad and you’re ready to go. If you just come upon a bike while walking, you can reserve it right there using the keypad, even without a smartphone. When you’re done, you can leave it at any bike rack. Bikes can be rented by the hour, pro-rated to the nearest minute or rented on a monthly basis. Monthly renters get one free hour per day. The onboard electronics are powered by a fender-mounted solar panel. A hub-mounted dynamo also provides power. The company tracks user behavior to determine optimal station locations.


Capital Bikeshare in Washington, DC, works in a similar manner, though regular users get a key, while short term renters get a 5-digit code. Rentals must begin and end at a station in a special bike rack called a “dock.” Over 3,000 bicycles are available at 350 stations. Their bikes are equipped with head and tail lights that automatically come on at dusk. A mobile app shows station locations and bike availability.

Peer to peer bike sharing options, where you rent directly from a private bike owner, are also starting to appear.

The environmental benefits of bike-riding are numerous. In Philadelphia, for example, cyclists avoid 47,450 tons of CO2 per year by riding instead of driving their cars to work. Cyclists in Copenhagen avoid roughly twice that amount. Not only is the air cleaner, but the people are healthier, too. Moving forward, as electric bikes are added to the mix, even more people will find themselves biking around town.

about the author
RP Siegel
Skilled writer. Technology, sustainability, engineering, energy, renewables, solar, wind, poverty, water, food. Studied both English Lit.and Engineering at university level. Inventor.