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It's time to embrace bike share

30 January 2015
Nextbike’s smart, electronic stations in Budapest
Nextbike’s smart, electronic stations in Budapest


Rob Grisdale charts the development of bike hire schemes from Amsterdam’s canal-bound white bicycles to contactless cards, smart docking stations and e-bikes

Google the ‘history of bike sharing’ and you’ll discover the long and rocky road that innovation in this field has taken. The 1965 ‘White Bicycle Scheme’ in Amsterdam was first to experiment with a free-to-use approach, but the bikes quickly ended up in the canal. This led to efforts to secure the bikes, charge people for their hire and subsidise the operation.

It took another 30 years for city-wide solutions to appear. The ‘Bikeabout’ system at Portsmouth University featured a swipe card system to unlock bikes and pay for the hire automatically.

Fast forward to today - there are nearly 700 city schemes and fast approaching a million bikes in circulation across all global bike share operations.

Technology labs have replaced the garden sheds, and innovation is now moving in leaps and bounds.
Steps are being taken to encourage bike share through integration with other transport modes and achieving the scale needed for success whilst also being financially viable.

Integration is key
Public transport is only attractive if users can complete their door-to-door journey ‘seamlessly’ with minimal effort or delay. In bike sharing, integration is not just about putting bike stations next to bus and train stations but also integrating access.

As a bike hire operator, this is something we seek to do in cities where lots of people are using contactless travel cards. It makes sense to ensure that those travel cards can also be used to hire bikes.

The same applies for registrations; people hate filling forms, so we like to link our bike scheme registration with other transport mode forms, therefore removing a definite barrier for some.

Mobile payments (NFC) is now an option for our bike sharing systems – a case of  tapping your phone to release a bike. Apparently plastic cards will soon be extinct, but considering some are still using cheques I don’t think this will happen any time soon.

Getting smarter
There needs to be enough bikes and stations available for any bike sharing system to work. A minimum of 10 bikes for each 1,000 of the population and 10 stations per square kilometer is the industry guideline. In reality, this is often not achievable for financial and planning reasons, so it is often phased successfully or grown using scheme profit sharing from the operator.

New ‘Smart Bikes’ don’t require docking stations. The locking technology is on the bike, so standard racks can be used as rental stations. This reduces cost and reduces planning efforts so it is easier to get scale.

Whilst Smart Bikes offer some clear advantages for small or medium schemes, docking station systems are generally favoured for larger schemes as they are more robust and neater than simple racks, with bikes secured in neat lines.

A hybrid system is the ideal solution for most cities, with smart, electronic docking stations in the most popular high profile locations and Smart Bike racks used elsewhere. This way, cities can achieve scale whilst easing the burden of cost and planning issues.
Our new Budapest scheme (Bubi) is the largest Smart Bike scheme in the world. This approach will become the blueprint for large city schemes. For example, flexible, smart technology would enable the Barclays Cycle Hire scheme to serve all London boroughs.

A plugged-in future
Electric bike share is likely to be the next big step as it will encourage people to cycle greater distances and increase accessibility for those who don’t appreciate the physical effort of cycling.

That said, there are still some major challenges facing the development of fully scalable e-bike schemes, including the logistics of charging and subsidising the high capital cost. Until then, cities are generally taking the safer option of man power.

All the recent innovations discussed above have made bike-sharing systems more flexible and cost effective than ever. It’s a great time to join the every growing bike sharing community.

Rob Grisdale is managing director of NextBike UK
Nextbike will be exhibiting at Smarter Travel

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