Smoothing the way for free bikes

columnicon-transportRegional cities need to build infrastructure before copying Paris

By Greg Spencer

Thanks to a wildly successful first year, Velib, Paris' free bike-share system, has inspired cities the world over, including those in Central and Eastern Europe, to try to follow its example. Cities in the CEE region having started or about to start such systems include Bucharest (see ); Prague; Koprivnica, Croatia; and Wroclaw and Krakow in Poland. Belgrade officials are thinking about launching a system for the Universiade games in 2009, and Budapest is studying the idea.

Free bike-hire systems, which date at least as far back as the famous 'White Bike' experiment in Amsterdam in the 1960s, offer a convenient, environmentally sound way of travelling in congested centres. Visitors from outlying districts can come downtown by car or public transport and have a bike at their disposal without the hassle or worry of bringing their own bikes.

Bucharest's bike-share system is the best developed in the CEE region. Photo: flickr

The first free-bike experiments foundered because of theft, but European systems in the last decade or so have mitigated this problem by requiring users to put up collateral via credit or debit cards.

The Parisian system, closely modelled after a successful trial in Lyon, has made a big splash with its unprecedented scale: When fully implemented, Velib will offer more than 20,000 bicycles parked at 1,500 stations.

Velib, launched on July 15, 2007, has been very effective at promoting bicycling as transport. According to the French capital's bicycling affairs coordinator Didier Couval, the number of Paris cycling journeys in the second half of the year was 45 percent higher than during the same period of 2006.

Taxpayers also like Velib, as it relies on a clever form of financing: Rather than cutting into the city budget, the system is operated by an outside vendor in exchange for the use of municipally-controlled outdoor advertising space.

Clearly, there's a lot about Velib to like, but CEE cities wishing to emulate its success might, for now, be putting the cart before the horse.

One point that gets lost in the 'Velorution' hubbub is that Velib was no overnight success. The groundwork started more than a decade before its launch with the implementation of former mayor Jean Tiberi's Plan Velo in 1995. Since then, the city has built more than 370 kilometres of bike paths and bike lanes, installed thousands of kerb-side bike racks, and established several under-30kph zones to reduce risks to cyclists.

No city in this region has made such preparations. In Budapest, for instance, the Mayor's Office boasts of having created 170 kilometres of cycling infrastructure. But this is a disconnected collection of routes, most of which are merely painted lines on pavements.

Recently, Hungary's transport ministry launched a programme that offers EU Structural Funds to support local-level cycling projects. Budapest City Hall is looking at the prospect of tapping this fund to create a bike-share system, but in the meanwhile it has bungled funding applications for basic infrastructure.

Studies show that the main deterrent to utility cycling in urban areas is the lack of safe and convenient bike routes. Free bike rentals are a great idea, but only if there are places where people want to ride them.

Greg Spencer, a member of the REC's Sustainable Transport Topic Area, writes about utility cycling at

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