A bicycle-sharing system, public bicycle system, or bike-share scheme, is a service in which bicycles are made available for shared use to individuals on a very short term basis. Bike share schemes allow people to borrow a bike from point A and return it at point B. Many bike-share systems offer subscriptions that make the first 30–45 minutes of use either free or very inexpensive, encouraging use as transportation. This allows each bike to serve several users per day. In most bike-share cities, casual riding over several hours or days is better served by bicycle rental than by bike-share. For many systems, smartphone mapping apps show nearby stations with available bikes and open docks.
Bike-share began in Europe in 1965 and a viable format emerged in the mid-2000s thanks to the introduction of information technology. As of June 2014, public bike share systems were available in 50 countries on five continents, including 712 cities, operating approximately 806,200 bicycles at 37,500 stations. As of May 2011, the Wuhan and Hangzhou Public Bicycle bike-share systems in China were the largest in the world, with around 90,000 and 60,000 bicycles respectively. Of the world’s 15 biggest public bike share programs 13 of them are in China. By 2013, China had a combined fleet of 650,000 public bikes. With the arrival of dockless bike shares, there are now over 70 private dockless bikeshares operating a combined fleet of 16 million sharebikes in China. Beijing alone has 2.35 million sharebikes from 15 companies. The Vélib’ in Paris is the largest outside China. The countries with the most dock based systems are Spain (132), Italy (104), and China (79). As of July 2013, the systems with the higher market penetration are both operating in France, the Parisian Velib’ with 1 bike per 97 inhabitants and Vélo’v in Lyon with one bike per 121 residents.
Bicycle-sharing systems may be “Community Bike programmes” organised mostly by local community groups or non-profit organisations; or “Smart Bike programmes” implemented by government agencies, sometimes in a public–private partnership. Their central concept is to provide free or affordable access to bicycles for short-distance trips in an urban area as an alternative to motorised public transport or private vehicles, thereby reducing congestion, noise, and air pollution. Bicycle-sharing systems have also been cited as a way to solve the “last mile” problem and connect users to public transit networks.
People use bike-share for various reasons. Some who would otherwise use their own bicycle have concerns about theft or vandalism, parking or storage, and maintenance. However, serving only stations, the service resembles public transit, and has therefore been criticised as less convenient than a privately owned bicycle used door-to-door. Government-run bicycle-sharing programmes can also prove costly to the public unless subsidised by commercial interests, typically in the form of advertising on stations or the bicycles themselves.
E-bike sharing is becoming more popular. The e-bikes are generally recharged upon parking them at their station. E-bikes extend the range of the bikes and make cities with more difficult topographies more accessible to biking. In 2009, Chiyu Chen proposed the Hybrid2-system which stores some of the pedal power on a (ultra) capacitor. Similar to vehicle-to-grid systems, the energy is then fed back to the main electricity grid. The Ohio State University announced plans to integrate electric assist bicycles as part of its bicycle share program launching in 2015.
Although users of such systems generally pay to use vehicles that they themselves do not own, sharing systems differ from traditional for-profit bike rental businesses. The first bike sharing projects were largely initiated by local community organisations, either as charitable projects intended for the disadvantaged, or to promote bicycles as a non-polluting form of transport. In recent years, in an effort to reduce losses from theft and vandalism, many bike-sharing schemes now require a user to provide a monetary deposit or other security, or to become a paid subscriber. Most large-scale urban bike sharing programmes utilise numerous bike check-out stations, and operate much like public transit systems, catering to tourists and visitors as well as local residents. Some bike-sharing systems are completely free like Aarhus City Bikes in Denmark.
To date, no publicly owned and administered bicycle sharing programme has yet been able to consistently operate as a self-funding enterprise, using only revenues generated from membership subscriptions or user fees and charges. As a consequence, most publicly owned bicycle sharing systems utilise funding from public governmental and/or charitable sources. Bike sharing schemes may be administered by government entities, nonprofit private organisations, or via public-private partnerships.
Many bicycle sharing schemes have been developed by a variety of organisations over the years, all based on one or more of the following systems:
- In this type of programme the bicycles are simply released into a city or given area for use by anyone. In some cases, such as a university campus, the bicycles are only designated for use within certain boundaries. Users are expected to leave the bike unlocked in a public area once they reach their destination. Because the bike is not required to be returned to a centralised station, ready availability of such bicycles is rare, and since unlocked bikes may be taken by another user at any time, the original rider is forced to find alternative transport for the return trip. Bicycle sharing programs without locks, user identification, and security deposits have also historically suffered large loss rates from theft and vandalism.
- A small cash deposit releases the bike from a locked terminal and can only be retrieved by returning it to another. Since the deposit (usually one or more coins) is a fraction of the bike’s cost, this does little to deter theft. Other bike sharing programmes have implemented rules requiring the user to provide a valid credit card, along with substantial security deposits for bicycles and mandatory security locks.
- In this version of the system, bicycles are kept either at volunteer-run hubs or at self-service terminals throughout the city. Individuals registered with the program identify themselves with their membership card (or by a smart card, via cell phone, or other methods) at any of the hubs to check out a bicycle for a short period of time, usually three hours or less. In many schemes the first half-hour is free. The individual is responsible for any damage or loss until the bike is returned to another hub and checked in.
- Many of the membership-based systems are operated through public-private partnerships. Several European cities, including the French cities of Lyon and Paris as well as London, Barcelona, Stockholm and Oslo, have signed contracts with private advertising agencies (JCDecaux in Brussels, Lyon, Paris, Seville and Dublin; Clear Channel in Stockholm, Oslo, Barcelona, Antwerp, Perpignan and Zaragoza) which supply the city with thousands of bicycles free of charge (or for a minor fee). In return, the agencies are allowed to advertise both on the bikes themselves and in other select locations in the city. Some other programmes are not linked to an advertising deal (for example Smoove) and are financed as a part of public transportation scheme. These programmes attempt to reduce losses from theft by requiring users to purchase subscriptions with a credit card or debit card (this option requiring a large, temporary deposit) and by equipping the bike with complex anti-theft and bike maintenance sensors. 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.
- In China, there was a rapid increase in the size and use of private app driven “dockless” bike share networks in the 2010s. Dockless bike shares are designed whereby a user need not return the bike to a kiosk or station; rather, the next user can find it by GPS. Over 30 private companies have started operating in China. In particular, Mobike and Ofo have become the world’s largest bike share operators with millions of bikes spread over 100 cities, mostly in China. They have also spread elsewhere, where they have been criticized as “rogue” systems instituted without respect for local authorities.
Sometimes known as bike library systems, 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, and is encouraged or obliged to lock it between uses. 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.
Advantages of long-term use include rider familiarity with the bicycle and a mode of travel that is always nearby and instantly ready for use. The bicycle can be checked out like a library book, a liability waiver can be collected at check-out, and the bike can be returned any time. A Library Bike in a person’s possession can be chosen for some trips instead of a car, thus lowering car usage. The long-term rental system generally results in fewer repair costs to the scheme administrator, as riders are incentivised to obtain minor maintenance in order to keep the bike in running order during the long rental period. Most of the long-term systems implemented to date are funded solely through charitable donations of second-hand bicycles, using unpaid volunteer labour to maintain, and administer the bicycle fleet. While reducing or eliminating the need for public funding, such a scheme imposes an outer limit to program expansion. The Arcata Bike Library, in California, has loaned over 4000 bicycles using this system.
Partnership with public transport sector
In a national-level programme that combines a typical rental system with several of the above system types, a passenger railway operator or infrastructure manager partners with a national cycling organisation and others to create a system closely connected with public transport. These programmes usually allow for a longer rental time of up to 24 or 48 hours, as well as tourists and round trips. In some German cities the national rail company offers a bike rental service called Call a Bike.
In Guangzhou, China, the privately operated Guangzhou Bus Rapid Transit system includes cycle lanes, and a public bicycle system.
In some cases, like Santander Cycles in London, the bicycle sharing system is owned by the public transport authority itself.
In other cases, like EnCicla in the city of Medellin (Colombia, South America), the Bicycle Sharing System is connected to other modes of transportation, such as the Metro.
Partnership with car park operators
Some car park operators such as Vinci Park in France lend bikes to their customers who park a car.
Partnership with car-share operations
City CarShare, a San Francisco-based non-profit, received a federal grant in 2012 to integrate electric bicycles within its existing car-sharing fleet. The program is set to launch before the end of 2012 with 45 bikes.
Many community-run bicycle programmes paint their bicycles in a strong solid colour, such as yellow or white. Painting the bicycles helps to advertise the programme, as well as deter theft (a painted-over bicycle frame is normally less desirable to a buyer). However, theft rates in many bike-sharing programmes remain high, as most shared-use bicycles have value only as basic transport, and may be resold to unsuspecting buyers after being cleaned and repainted. In response, some large-scale bike sharing programmes have designed their own bike using specialised frame designs and other parts to prevent disassembly and resale of stolen parts.
Another advantage of bike-sharing systems is that the smart-cards allow the bicycles to be returned to any station in the system, which facilitates one-way rides to work, education or shopping centres. Thus, one bike may take 10–15 rides a day with different users and can be ridden up to 10,000 km (6,200 mi) a year (citing Lyon, France). Each bike has at least one of these rides with one unique user per day which indicates that in 2014 there were a minimum of at least 294 million unique bike share cyclists worldwide (806,200 bicycles x 365) although common sense indicates that this figure may be a very small estimate of the true number of bike share users.
It was found—in cities like Paris and Copenhagen—that to have a major impact there had to be a high density of available bikes. Copenhagen has 2500 bikes which cannot be used outside the 9 km2 (3.5 sq mi) zone of the city centre (a fine of DKr 1000 applies to any user taking bikes across the canal bridges around the periphery). Since Paris’s Vélib’ programme operates with an increasing fee past the free first half-hour, users have a strong disincentive to take the bicycles out of the city centre. The distance between stations is only 300–400 metres (1,000–1,300 ft) in inner city areas.
In May 2011, there were around 375 bikesharing systems comprising 236,000 bicycles, and by April 2013 there were around 535 schemes around the world, made of an estimated fleet of 517,000 bicycles. As of June 2014, public bikesharing systems were operating in 50 countries on five continents, including 712 cities, operating approximately 806,200 bicycles at 37,500 stations.
In 2012 the Wuhan and Hangzhou Public Bicycle programs in China are the largest in the world, with around 90,000 and 60,000 bicycles respectively. China has seen a rise in private “dockless” bike shares with fleets that dwarf systems in size outside China. One such bike share alone, Mobike, operates 100,000 dockless bikes in each of the cities of Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen and Guangzhou. Another operator, Bluegogo operates 35,000 bikes in Shenzhen, 25,000 bikes in Guangzhou, and 10,000 in Chengdu. Overall, there are more than 30 private bike share operators that have put over 3 million dockless bikes in various cities in China. By late 2017, the Ministry of Transport reported that China’s dockless bike fleet has grown to 16 million bikes. The Vélib’ in Paris, which comprises around 18,000 bicycles and 1,230 bicycle stations, is the largest outside China. Santander Cycles in London has about 8,000 bikes, and New York City’s Citi Bike has about 6,000.
As of July 2013, the systems with the higher market penetration are Velib’ in Paris with 1 bike per 97 inhabitants, Vélo’v in Lyon with 1 bike per 121 residents, and Hangzhou in China with 1 per 145. Barcelona’s Bicing has 1 per 270, Montreal’s Bixi has 1 per 300, London’s Santander Cycles has 1 per 984, and New York City’s Citi Bike has 1 per 8,336.
A study published in 2015 in the journal Transportation concludes that bike sharing systems can be grouped into behaviourally similar categories based upon their size. Cluster analysis shows that larger systems display greater behavioural heterogeneity amongst their stations, and smaller systems generally have stations which all behave similarly in terms of their daily utilisation patterns.