Bike Share for Locals and Travelers

Published 2011-08-24 10:10:19

Alignement de vélos à Paris (Vélib) © mat75002 - FotoliaTraffic, congestion and pollution have long been a plague on cities. While public transportation helps to abate some of these problems, it is not always available. One of the best options in many cities is to take to the road - by bike. Two wheels rather than four can not only lessen the environmental footprint you have on the world, it can also provide faster transport, it's cheap, has distinct health benefits, and it can also help you form a stronger bond to the city around you.

City Bike Programs

Many cities are now seeing the value of having a community of bike riders. City governments are adding bike lanes, riders are forming groups, and routes and tips are posted online. "Utility cycling" is a term that refers to cycling not done primarily for fitness or recreation, but as a means of transport. Bike sharing and inexpensive rentals are gaining in popularity for both tourists and residents. Cities want people to get out there, and get riding.

Bike Sharing

Bicycle sharing systems allow for a number of bicycles to be easily accessible, either from stands are parked at strategic locations, and be shared among multiple users. This removes the difficulties of bike ownership such as loss from theft or vandalism, lack of parking or storage, and maintenance requirements.

vélo et fleur à Amsterdam © Jean-Jacques Cordier - FotoliaThe earliest programs stem from the 1960s, begun by Luud Schimmelpenninck and the radical group Provo in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Provo was a Dutch counterculture movement that focused on provoking violent responses from authorities using non-violent bait. They created the "White Bicycle Plan" which provided free bicycles that were supposed to be used for one trip and then left for someone else. However, the program was not a complete success as most of the bikes were stolen or vandalized. Luckily, this did not deter other cities from developing programs. Currently there are more than 200 schemes operating worldwide.

There are several different types of programs.

Unregulated - Bicycles are left unlocked for use by anyone. These are often for a designated area such as university campuses or parks. This is the easiest to use system, except that it can be difficult to find bikes as they are usually in high demand. These programs usually suffer the worst loss as well.

By Deposit - A small cash deposit allows for the bike from a locked terminal or stand. Deposit is returned when the bike is turned back in. Because the deposit is less than the cost of the bike, it does not necessarily deter theft. Some programs now take credit card info to combat that factor.

Membership - In this version of the program, bicycles are kept either at volunteer-run hubs or at self-service terminal. Individuals must be registered with the program and are usually issued a membership card (this may actually be a smart card, via cell phone). Membership may cost a small fee per month, or be free.

Public-private partnership - These partnerships between a city's public service sector and a private agency are very popular and successful. The company supplies the city with the bikes and are allowed to advertise on the bikes and in other locations in the city. Users must purchase subscriptions with a credit card or debit card by paying a large, temporary deposit. If the bike is not returned within the subscription period, or returned with significant damage, the bike sharing operator withdraws money from the user's credit card account. Bikes are equipped with anti-theft and bike maintenance sensors. As an alternative, some programs are financed by public support.

Long-term Checkout - Also known as Bike Library models, these bicycles may be lent free of charge, for a refundable deposit, or for a small fee. A bicycle is checked out to one person who will typically keep the bike for several months. A disadvantage of this system is a lower usage frequency, around three uses per day on average as compared to 10 to 15 uses per day typically experienced with other bike sharing schemes.


Copenhagen [Denmark]

Copenhagen is a haven for bike riders with an accepting attitude and about 350 kilometers of bicycle lanes and paths. Nearly 40 percent of the population commute by bike with a staggering 96 percent of all school children owning a bicycle.

Copenhagen City Bikes (Bycykler København) was launched in 1995. Started with 1,000 cycles, the project was the world's first large-scale urban bike-share. This has grown to 2,500 bikes and is supported by commercial sponsors. The bikes are unique in that their parts cannot be used on other bikes, deterring vandalism or theft.

How to Use
Bikes are free to use after riders pay a refundable deposit (kr 20 coin) at one of 110 special bike stands. Only available from May 1st to December 15th, the bikes are rudimentary and gearless, but allow for easy transport around the city center. To deter theft and minimize maintenance, the bicycles have a distinctive design that includes solid spokeless wheels with puncture-resistant tyres. Bikes are only available in the city as riders are subject to a fine if taking them outside of the center.
Official Site: Bycykler København

Barcelona [Spain]

The plan for the bike sharing program was met with skepticism in Barcelona, but has been quite successful. 1,500 bicycles and 100 stations were added to other public transport stations such as metro, train, buses and major car parks. The red and white bikes can be seen all over town and 30,000 people subscribed online in the first 2 months.

How to Use
Bicing is the name of their system, with a detailed web site providing information on stations, how many bikes are available at each one, bike renting history, maps and even the weather forecast. Registration must be done before use with a card being sent in the mail in about 10 days.

The annual subscription is €24 which includes your swipe card to unlock the bikes. The first 30 minutes are free, and for rentals over that time limit, rates are only €0.30 for each half hour. The maximum time you can keep a bike is 2 hours. Interestingly, the system is primarily for residents as bikes aren't available for immediate use and cards are only sent to Catalonian addresses.
Official site:

Hangzhou [China]

The largest bike sharing system in the world puts all other to shame. About 50,000 bikes are in operation in Hangzhou, China. There are over 2,050 bike-share stations and there are plans to expand to 175,000 bikes. There have been surprisingly few issues with theft or damage to the bikes.

How to Use
The bikes are free for the first hour of use. They have a point-of-sale system placed directly into the bikes. A local transport card can simply be swiped over swiped over the bike and it is yours to use. The first hour is free to use, with each additional hour costing 1 yuan.
Official site:

London [England]

About 5,000 bicycles and 315 docking stations are distributed across the City of London and parts of eight London boroughs. This offers coverage of approximately 17 square miles (44 km2), roughly matching the Zone 1 Travelcard area. There are about 6,000 bikes and 400 docking stations. The bikes are informally referred to as Boris bikes, after Boris Johnson the Mayor of London.

How to Use
Regular users of the scheme register on the website and sign up for one of three levels of access: daily, weekly or yearly. Users are then sent a key in the post to operate the docking stations which they must activate before they use it for the first time. A key costs 3 GBP, and up to four can be registered under a single account. Scheme members insert the membership key into a docking point key slot; an amber light indicates that the account is being verified, then a green light indicates that the cycle can be undocked.

Casual users can access bikes with a Visa or MasterCard credit or debit card (with Chip and PIN). Users can go to a docking station and follow the on-screen instructions.

Users of the scheme must pay both an access fee and usage charges, though the first 30 minutes are free. 24-hour access costs 1 GBP, seven-day access costs 5 GBP, and annual access costs 45 GBP. After the first 30 min, usage charges are 1 hour costs 1 GBP, 2 hours are 4 GBP, and 3 hours are 6 GBP, 24 hours is 50 GBP.
Official site:

Medellin [Colombia]

The infamous city in Colombia has been working to correct it's image for some time, and continues to do that with a new bike sharing program they are rolling out in September. Nicknamed "Bici K" by their engineer student creators, 160 public bicycles will be available complete with GPS tracking software and swipe card stations.

How to Use
Users can sign up online or at one of the automated kiosks. Bikes will be free to use for up to 30 minutes from 5:30 to 19:30. 20 – 30 students from Eafit University will help monitor and run the program.

Melbourne [Australia]

The first municipal bicycle share system in Australia was launched in Melbourne in June 2010. Based on Montreal's BIXI system, it was launched with only 10 stations. The bike share is open for casual use, and for long-term users. It has experienced some disappoints, possibly because of the mandatory helmet laws. But the program is being actively grown and promoted.

How to Use
Casual users may simply go to a docking station, and follow the on-screen instructions with a credit or debit card. The machine will issue a bike unlocking code which is valid for one bike for one trip. For each subsequent trip, re-insert your credit card to receive a new unlocking code and the card will not be charged another access fee. Users are charged $2.50 per day, or a weekly subscription of $8.00 per week. There are also trip fees of $2 for 1 hour, $7 for 90 min, $17 for 2 hours, with $10 for each additional hour.

Annual subscribers register online and receive a key in the mail they can use to check-out bikes. Subscription costs $50 a year.
Official site:

Mexico City [Mexico]

Driven by a need to lower it's emissions, Mexico City began a program called EcoBici. Initially launched with 85 docking stations and 1,000 distinctive red and white bicycles, the network has since expanded. Run by the private company Clear Channel, it is supported by a government initiative. It seems to be working as there are currently 30,000 registered ECOBICI users with a waiting list to sign up.

How to Use
Use is regulated through a system of registration and user cards which allow access to the bikes during hours of operation. Annual registration cost is $300 pesos per year, which entitles users to use a bike for free for a maximum of 30 minutes per instance. After 30 minutes, there is a 10 peso charge for the following 30 minutes and an additional $35 peso charge for the second hour. Bikes are available for use between 6 a.m. and 12:30 midnight.
Official site:

Montreal [Canada]

Montreal, Canada's Bixi program is North America's largest bike sharing system with 5000 bicycles. It is accessible to locals and tourists alike and utilizes the city's already user friendly paths and attitude. The scheme is similar to the one in London, Boston, Toronto, Wahington DC, Minneaplois, Melbourne, Ottawa.

How to Use
There are 400 depots are located throughout the city. Bikes can be rented from automated stations with a Bixi key obtained through a long-term online subscription (30 days or annual) or an access code provided by the pay station (24-hour access). Subscribers receive an unlimited number of rentals under 30 minutes. Subscriptions are $5 per day (at a pay station), $28 per month or $78 per year.

Official site:

Paris [France]

Bicycles parking © Vladimir Liverts - FotoliaIn Paris, the Velib program is hugely popular. Launched in 2007, the system has expanded to over 20,000 bicycles and 1,202 bicycle stations. It is operated as a concession by JCDecaux, a major French advertising corporation. The success of the program has directly led to the support of many other programs. It is now considered the second largest bike sharing system of its kind in the world. Similar bikes are found in other cities in France (Lyon, Laval...) and in Europe, such as Seville, Spain.

Each Vélib´ station is equipped with an automatic rental terminal and has stands for dozens of grey bicycles. Maps showing the locations of the city's Vélib´ stations are available at all kiosks. The rental terminals also display information about neighboring Vélib´ stations, including location, number of available bicycles and open stands. A fleet of 23 bicycle-transporting vehicles are used 24/7 to redistribute bicycles between empty and full stations. In order to use the system, users need to take out a subscription, which allows the subscriber an unlimited number of rentals.

How to Use
A credit card or debit card with PIN is required to sign up for the program and to rent the bikes. Subscriptions can be purchased at €1.70 per day, €8/week or €29/year. With a subscription, bike rental is free for the first half hour of every individual trip; an unlimited number of such free trips can be made per day. A trip that lasts longer than 30 minutes incurs a charge of €1 to €4 for each subsequent 30-minute period. The increasing price scale is intended to keep the bikes in circulation. The credit/debit card will be charged €150 if a rented bike is not returned.
Official site:

Rio de Janeiro [Brazil]

Brazil's program appropriately called Samba, was recently started with just a few stations but hopes to grow as the system develops. The bike share is available for residents but also for tourists and allows for easy access to the 140 kilometers of bike-paths in the city.

How to Use
Users register on the site with a credit card. Then a pass is available for daily, weekly, monthly or annual rental. Users must then call the number on the pick up station panel and enter a security code, and a bike will be unlocked. A deposit of around 300 R is charged.
Official Site:

Washington, D.C. [USA]

Washington is working hard to diminish issues with congestion in the downtown area. Smartbike was the first network of bikes within the United States, and has since transitioned to CapitalBikeshare (CaBi). The new CaBi system includes 1,100 bikes with 100 locations in the District and 14 more stations in Arlington.

How to Use
The program is a membership system. Riders can either select to ride
short-term (1-5 days) by purchasing a 24-hour membership for $5 or 5-day membership for $15 (the first 30 minutes of each of your trips are free). You can pick up a bike by registering online, going to the kiosk, using the unlock code to get your bike. A deposit of $101 per bike is placed on your card, but not charged unless the bike is not returned.
long term (1 month-1 year) by signing up online and being sent a key in the mail within 7 days. Once you receive your key, you can use to unlock a bike. No security deposit is charged when you subscribe as an annual or 30-day Capital Bikeshare member.
Official Site:

Bike Resources

  • Bike Sharing Blog - Up-to-date info on bike sharing programs around the world, with helpful Bike Sharing World Map.
  • Optimizing Bike Sharing in European Cities (OBIS) handbook - Contains data from bike-sharing in 10 European counties to identify the best practices, success factors, limits and market potentials.
  • CTC - The United Kingdom's largest cycling membership organization.
  • Bicycle Habitat - Resources, map, and community for biking in NYC.
  • Bikes Belong - Sponsored by the U.S. bicycle industry, this group has a goal of putting more people on bicycles more often.
  • The City Fix - Online resource for sustainable transport news, research and “best practice” solutions from around the world.
  • Cycling Resource Center - The site is an Australian information hub on all things related to cycling.
  • Bike Asia - An adventure cycling Tour Company provides tours and offers info on paths and groups.

Expat Bike Riders & Posts about Bikes

Circuit Rider CZ - An Englishman in Prague, he describes his self-imposed challenge to cycle around the entire border of the Czech Republic.

Invader Stu - Among his posts about being an Englishman accidentally in the Netherlands, Invader Stu describes how having a bike stolen means you are fully integrated.

Maxxelli Blog - Among the many bits of helpful advice for newcomers to China is information on bike travel in China.

Traveling Tribe - The traveling tribe is an American family that arrived in Copenhagen via stays Spain and Morocco. They have adapted to the city and it's unique biking culture.

Have a story, city program, or resource to share? Post in our comments section.

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