Can the bicycle become an element of the public transport system of European cities? It seems that it can. Currently the concept of public bicycles is spreading throughout Europe and adds a new element to the public transport system of many cities.
Public bicycles are innovative schemes of rental or free bicycles in inner urban areas. They differ from traditional, mostly leisure-oriented bicycle rental services as they provide fast and easy access and can be used for daily mobility as one way use is possible. The success of the concept has for example been proven in Lyon, Paris, Munich and Barcelona, where large scale and automated bicycle rental services have been implemented and offer thousands of public bicycles to the citizens.
The concept of public bicycles has been analyzed in the NICHES project (2005-2007, funded by the European Commission), which elaborated guidance documents on the planning and implementation process for different innovative urban transport solutions, including public bicycles (see www.nichestransport.org). Within the project, public bicycles received high attention from cities all over Europe and even from North and South-America.
Since 2006, there has been a real boom of public bicycle systems in some parts of Europe. Particularly in France and Spain it seems that nearly every larger city wants offer such a service. These countries do not have a pronounced bicycle culture yet, but there is much discussion about the important role that the bicycle could play in urban transport as a new form of individualized public transport. In Spain, the concept is even promoted on the national level.
In Central and Eastern European countries, the interest in the bicycle in general seems to awaken slowly, but public bicycles are no big topic yet. The concept might, however, have potential for cities in these countries that are already working on improving the cycling conditions (e.g. infrastructure) and want to achieve a “change of mind” regarding the possible role of the bicycle in urban transport.
While there is much enthusiasm about Public Bicycles and much potential to make such schemes a success, it also seems that the concept has become very “fashionable”. This can be a danger as it may sometimes hinder the view on the complexity of planning and implementing a public bicycle system, which only works in an integrated strategy hand in hand with accompanying measures (e.g. bicycle infrastructure, traffic education, bicycle training, marketing). The costs of starting and maintaining a public bicycle system also need to be analyzed carefully. This makes the exchange between forerunner cities and newcomers to the topic particularly valuable.
Public bicycle schemes have the potential to achieve a change towards a more sustainable multimodal travel behavior (“the right mode for the right trip”), if properly implemented. They can be part of the “bigger puzzle” of an integrated urban transport strategy, which enables cities to reduce motorized traffic and its environmental impact.