The History of Bike Sharing Schemes (And What They’ll Look Like In the Future)

Visit virtually any city these days, and no matter where in the world it is, you’re bound to find its own public bike rental scheme. China, for what it’s worth, has about 60 of its own, while many of the European cycling hotbeds, like Denmark, France, Germany and the Netherlands have also taken them under their wings.

Perhaps what has made bike sharing schemes such a smash hit is their accessibility. You can hire them in all shapes and sizes, and that they tend not to be massively state-of-the-art only boosts its appeal to a wider audience.

But how did bicycle rental first come into existence? What different types are available across the globe? And what has made them such a roaring success, particularly since the turn of the millennium?

Image result for bike sharing

The First Bike Sharing Schemes

By all accounts, the public bikes phenomenon stems back to Amsterdam in 1965, when Dutch inventor Luud Schimmelpennink came up with a plan to alleviate the rise of pollution and cars.

Almost too simplistic, Schimmelpennink encouraged people to find any old bicycles of theirs and paint them white. Then they were to leave them anywhere in Amsterdam and tell others to use them. Fittingly, it was known as the ‘White Bicycle’ movement.

Luud Schimmelpennink

But the plan was, in fact, a ploy from Provo, a group of Dutch anarchists, to try and unsettle the establishment. They felt that “the white bike symbolises simplicity and hygiene, as opposed to the gaudiness and filth of the authoritarian car.” So, if anyone in Amsterdam urgently needed transport, an unlocked white bicycle became a new alternative.

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However, the police seized the bikes due to a law forbidding unlocked bikes to be left in the city. 

When the bikes were returned to the group, they were fitted with combination locks, while the unlock codes were painted on the bike so anybody could open and use it.

The project probably had a greater impact long-term than it did at the time. There were only about 50 bikes available, most of which were hardly used, and the bicycle sharing scheme was discontinued the following year.

Thereafter, it was not until the 1990s that bike sharing schemes made a significant return; France’s ‘La Rochelle’ system came into effect in 1974, with bikes left on racks by the harbour, but was the only real exception to the rule until then. Meanwhile, Denmark’s “2 Gen” business, established in 1991 in the town of Farsø, is still going strong today.

From then on, a number of other schemes far and wide began to sprout up in the 1990s, in England (Cambridge, Portsmouth), the US (Portland, Austin), Denmark (Copenhagen) and Norway (Sandnes, Trondheim). Though all but Austin’s 1997 ‘Yellow Bike Scheme’ have now been discontinued, they helped the set the tone for the huge influx of schemes all over the world in the 2000s.

Timeline of Important Bike Sharing Schemes

Year Scheme Name Location Why was this scheme so important?
1965 WhiteBikes Amsterdam, Netherlands First bicycle sharing scheme introduced in the world
1995 Bycykler København (Copenhagen City Bikes) Copenhagen, Denmark Next major bike sharing scheme, lasted almost 20 years. Used fixed docks where drivers would enter deposits before riding
1998 Vélo a la Carte Rennes, France Built in tandem with the city’s infrastructure, with stations built at bus stations and park-and-ride facilities; represented a huge step forward for the integration of bike sharing into the wider community
2005 Vélo’v Lyon, France First system to use digital technology; required a specific card and PIN number to release bikes from docks
2007 Vélib’ Paris, France Before closing in December 2017, comprised of up to 14,500 shared bikes – showed how popular it can be
2009 BIXI Montreal Montreal, Canada First of the now hugely popular BIXI bike share schemes
2010 Barclays Bikes (AKA Boris Bikes) London, United Kingdom First major bike sharing scheme in UK
2017 KU Mobike Singapore, Thailand First of the Mobike shared bike operator, now the largest business in this industry in the world, sold in April 2018 for $30 billion

How Bike Sharing Schemes Became Mainstream

In many cities these days, bike sharing schemes are as just crucial to infrastructure and public transport as any other means of getting from A to B.

For instance, since launching in July 2010, more than 73.5 million journeys have been made in London using hire bikes called ‘Boris Bikes’, named after then-mayor Boris Johnson, under whose tenure the scheme was launched. It has since gone on to be sponsored by Barclays and now Santander; hence its current name, ‘Santander Cycles’.

Why were they such a success? Perhaps because they could appeal to anyone; cycling regulars, novices, tourists, commuters, to name a few. In an overflowing goldfish bowl like London, these bikes (initially blue, now red Santander bikes) made moving around the city far more pleasant than taking the tube, for instance, as well as the obvious health benefits. Indeed, despite the initial widespread scepticism towards the plans, few could have predicted just how profitable they still are today.

Similarly, New York’s Citi Bike scheme now boasts a daily ridership of about 50,000 and more than 750 stations, having been in effect since May 2013. Elsewhere, China continues to dominate, with 78,000 bikes offered for temporary use by the biggest company in the industry; Hangzhou Public Bicycle. Beyond that, almost every other major bike share programme can be found in China.

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Dockless Bike Sharing Schemes

Another reason for the surge in popularity of bike sharing schemes is their ease of access. Nowadays, punters can rent bikes directly through smartphone apps, with bike sharing companies like the New York-based JUMP Bikes, for example. Essentially, you can pick up and drop off your hired bike anywhere through your phone’s GPS and the company’s app.

The aforementioned China-based Mobike is one of the leading lights in this category. Their bikes are activated by downloading a QR code through the company’s app, and now operate in a multitude of countries including Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and Thailand. Alternatively, Lime, based in California, offer $1 for a 30-minute ride, as well as electric bikes and pay-per-use scooters.

And in Berlin, you even have the option of riding a ‘Lidl-Bike’, whereby through their official smartphone app, you can sign up for membership (€3 per year) and start riding in no time. The first 30 minutes costs €1.50, before an additional charge every half-hour of €1, while a full 24-hour bicycle hire is priced at just €15.50. There’s 350 drop-off zones all over the city, so you’ll never be too far from one of them in Berlin. Don’t worry if you don’t have a smartphone, either, because you can also call the phone number on the handlebars. Then, enter the release code using the display and you’ll be up and running.

That said, it would be remiss to suggest that there isn’t a dockless bike hire scheme that hasn’t encountered its fair share of issues, too. Many bikes have been abandoned or lost as a result of such programmes – take the 18,000 misplaced almost overnight in Dallas, Texas or the 10,000 abandoned at ‘bicycle graveyards’ in China in 2018. Vandalism issues have also dogged the industry’s big hitters, namely Mobike, who cited this as a reason for pulling out of the European market.

But for both affordable rates and ease of use, you really can’t beat them. Just leave them as you’d like others to find them.

Bike Sharing Statistics

  • The global bike sharing market is predicted to enjoy a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of more than 6.5 per cent between 2020 and 2025. (Mordor Intelligence)
  • By 2021, the number of bikes in sharing schemes is expected to reach about 20 million, and be worth roughly €7.5 billion. (Statista)
  • Electric bicycle sharing programmes, both docked and dockless, are anticipated to continue to grow in 2020 and beyond, with more than 40 of the 192 US cities with bike sharing schemes already including e-bikes in their business. (Deloitte)
  • Citi Bike revealed that they took 517,768 rides from March 1 through March 11, 2020, rise from 310,132 during the same period last year and 287,218 the year before (80 per cent more rides this month than during the same period of March 2018). (Streetsblog NYC)
  • The seven companies with the most bikes at their disposal are all based in China; from Hangzhou’s 78,000 to Zhuzhou’s 20,000. (Wikipedia)

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The Future of Bike Sharing Schemes

As mentioned in the bike sharing stats section, this is a soaring market that is only projected to enjoy constant growth for some time yet. And as the business gets bigger and better all the time, the bike sharing future looks bright for a while, at least.

Well, electric scooters are likely to become more involved, as a means of getting around just as quickly and easily but with less of a physical toll than bikes. So too might e-bike charging stations, which are already becoming increasingly popular and again require less of a strenuous ordeal for the rider.

Image result for electric scooter

Meanwhile, a mixture of docked and dockless bikes could be another way to go, as precipitated lately by Twin Cities’ programme, Nice Ride. They don’t enable the user to drop the bikes anywhere, but instead having designated ‘hubs’ located all over cities. The thinking behind this is that allows for the convenience of dockless bike share, while simultaneously promoting bikes of a higher quality.

Matthew Chandler

Matthew Chandler

Matthew is a freelance sports journalist from Warrington, England. A keen cyclist, he is a regular contributor to Discerning Cyclist, as well as FourFourTwo, Click Liverpool and Royal Blue Mersey. See Matthew's Muck Rack profile

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