Bikesharing – a curse or a blessing for urban mobility?

The principle of bikesharing is simple: anyone can use a bike as he or she needs without having to own one. A fee will be charged for the duration of the trip; the usual purchase and maintenance costs for private bicycles are completely waived. Bikesharing is seen as an essential component of the urban transport system and serves as a supplement to public transport, which is becoming increasingly popular worldwide. Particularly popular with the cycling population, who now have access to a greater range of mobility options. Whereas in 2005 there were only 17 bike sharing services worldwide, today there are over 1,600 providers offering a total of 18 million bicycles to share. The main differences are the type of loan, the return and the price.

Where and how to find bikes

In principle, bikesharing systems can be divided into two categories: station-based and free-floating. For station-based bikesharing, as is the case with Citybike Vienna or Nextbike, bicycles are rented at fixed stations and returned to either the same or another station in the service area. The advantage is that it ensures a certain order in the urban environment, since all bicycles are parked in a defined place. These locations are easy to find and thus give a certain security to always be able to rent bicycles at a certain place. In contrast, bikes can be rented and returned from free-floating bikesharing systems throughout the service area – the rental system does not require any public infrastructure. Users do not have to make their destination dependent on a nearby return station, instead they can lock their rental bike directly at their destination.

What to do when finding a bike

To borrow a bike it is necessary to register in advance at the terminal, in an app or on the website of the bikesharing provider. Using the search function, free bikes can be found, as well as return stations for station-based bike sharing that have free spaces. Immediately after activation, every user can rent a bicycle. The payment takes place digitally after the return and depends on the period of use. For example, some providers in cities such as Vienna, Lyon, Paris or Barcelona offer the first half hour free of charge. Afterwards there are graduated prices, whereby the longer the use, the higher the price. Most of the bikesharing models pursue the goal of offering as many residents as possible an additional service with their fleet for the everyday routes, which are usually no longer than five kilometres per route. For longer trips on the weekend, providers such as donkey republic or nextbike are ideal with a relatively low daily maximum price of around 14 euros.

The dark side of bikesharing

Due to the latest generation of free-floating bikesharing systems, it didn’t take long before cities and their inhabitants got to know the dark side of bikesharing: Randomly parked rental bikes blocked pavements and entrances, they lay on the roadside, in parks or even at the bottom of rivers and lakes. In many places the trend arose to unlawfully park and often even damage the bikes in the most creative way. The supplier ofo (not operating anymore, comment 2020), operator of a fleet of more than 10 million bikes in over 20 countries, then introduced a reward and penalty system. Users receive minus points if they do not park the rental bike in any place conforming to road traffic regulations, e.g. in buildings, in the middle of the pavement or in front of monuments.

The cities also reacted. For example, Singapore has planned to curb the abuse of bikesharing with a new regulation since March 2018. There are a total of around 100,000 bikes from six suppliers. These have to be licensed by the Land Transport Authority (LTA), which regulates its fleet size based on demand and behaviour with randomly parked wheels. Bikesharing providers must pay a licence fee to the LTA in return. In addition, users who have repeatedly locked down their bicycles illegally will be banned for a certain period of time. Vienna also reacted with stricter rules that came into force in August 2018. From this point on, the fleet size of 1,500 rental bikes may not be exceeded. Damaged or incorrectly positioned bicycles must be removed within a few hours.

Blessing or curse?

Ideally, bikesharing reduces the number of cars for commuting or short distances, which has a positive effect on the quality of air and life in cities. Cycling also has health benefits. The urban economy benefits as well: Working and residential areas are upgraded because they are easier to reach. This benefits local companies that settle there, as well as users who consume services in new areas. However, as the experience of the last few months has confirmed, clear regulations are needed for all bikesharing providers in order to make urban mobility efficient and sustainable. This requires the interaction of all stakeholders. Cities must establish clear guidelines and at the same time facilitate or improve access for new market participants. On the other hand, transport providers should work more closely with cities from the very beginning, so that the existing mobility offers of a region are positively supplemented by new transport providers. Finally, behavioural guidelines and incentives are needed for consumers to deal responsibly with new mobility offers.

In short: Bikesharing can be both a curse and a blessing for the cities. What it is for each city itself, however, they should be able to influence this by themselves very well.

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