China Races Ahead of the Pack as Bike Sharing Goes Viral

Back in the summer of ’65, a group of self-styled anarchists whitewashed 50 bicycles and stationed them in the center of Amsterdam.

“We wanted to save the city,” said Luud Schimmelpennink, 79, who invented the “White Bicycle Plan” as a member of the anti-establishment Provo movement. “The idea was that with free bikes and no locks, people would stop using the car.”

Though the plan backfired -- the bikes were confiscated by the police -- it offered a glimpse of the future. That playful act of defiance has gone mainstream. And with the bike-sharing boom still in its first decade, Asia is already outpacing the European towns that gave birth to the phenomenon.

Hangzhou and Wuhan in China are the global leaders; India’s megacities are struggling to take off; the U.S. is playing catch-up; Africa is a no-show.

From flat Astana, Kazakhstan, to Quito, Ecuador, set at an altitude of almost 2 miles, there is now a bike-sharing program in more than 600 cities in 52 countries, according to Russell Meddin, who maintains and updates The Bike-Sharing World Map, a website that surveys cycle plans around the globe.

The Philadelphia-based biking aficionado, who has sampled programs in China, Europe and North America, said 68 new ones have been introduced this year -- a rate of two a week.

By putting millions of cyclists on the road, bike-sharing is reshaping the design of cities by connecting mass transit, removing cars from centers and creating new infrastructure. New York has built 300 miles of bike lanes while Danish riders have their own highway linking Copenhagen from the suburbs.

Urban Transformation

“Bike-sharing will continue to evolve as will the cities in which it exists,” said Paul DeMaio, a consultant for Washington D.C.’s regional service, which has 2,500 bikes.

European cities with compact downtowns, such as Milan and Barcelona, are more appealing to cyclists than the car-clogged streets of sprawling Karachi and Lagos.

That may explain why the concept was introduced in the northern French town of Rennes, where 200,000 residents got to try the first computerized system virtually for free in 1998. Paris adopted it in 2007.

Boasting a network of 20,600 bikes every 984 feet, the French capital served as a model for London, New York and beyond. The idea then, as now, is simple.

You get a key or a set of codes to unlock a bike from one of many stations scattered around the city. The first 30 minutes to an hour are typically free. After a journey, you park at the self-locking dock at or near the destination. There is usually a fee to participate -- London charges 90 pounds ($150) a year or 2 pounds for 24 hours, though Buenos Aires charges nothing.

As the craze swept east, China grew dominant and India struggled.

Bicycle Kingdom

In seven years, the world’s most populous nation went from no public bikes to 650,000, dwarfing France’s fleet of 47,000. This year it overtook Italy -- whose own system in Rome is a case study in what not to do -- as the nation with the most programs, according to Washington-based Earth Policy Institute.

Once dubbed the Kingdom of the Bicycles, China replaced bikes with cars in the 1980s as it focused on expanding its economy quickly. Now confronting toxic smog and traffic jams, the Communist leadership has re-embraced the tradition only recently shunned as backward.

A year after the Paris launch, China introduced it in the port city of Hangzhou with 2,800 bikes -- with fixed gears to limit the cost of theft and vandalism. There are now 65,000.

Big Bang

“I call it the big bang,” said Meddin. “You have to go big right away and not waste your time trying to test it out first on a small scale. That just doesn’t work.”

It’s a lesson India ignored. A cursory glance at the bike-sharing map shows the 1.2 billion-person peninsula is a desert of micro-sized pilots and feasibility studies that went nowhere.

Schimmelpennink, who still bikes every day in his home town of Amsterdam, flew last month to India’s technology hub of Bengaluru, formerly known as Bangalore, which has only experimented with bike-sharing at a college campus. He was shocked by what he saw: a potpourri of death-defying rickshaws, honking mopeds and banged-up cars snaking in and out of lanes.

“It looks dangerous to be a cyclist,” he said. “They’ve got a lot of work to do.”

With the United Nations predicting the number of cities with more than 10 million people will grow 50 percent -- from 28 today to 41 by 2030 -- one metropolis that stands out is Mexico City.

Mexican Lesson

In spite of a swarm of 20 million people and some of the world’s worst traffic, Mexico City made it work. In a March visit, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti asked how he could turn his own congested city into a haven for bikers. Efforts to get a system going have failed to get off the ground.

In Mexico, there was political will. The city rolled out a hefty initial investment -- $3,400 per bike, more than what Barcelona spent -- to have a docking station every 250 meters (820 feet), according to a 150-page study by the New York-based Institute for Transportation & Development policy. Given the size of the metropolitan area -- 2,330 square kilometers -- the program covers a fraction: 21 square kilometers.

Seattle, poised to launch a program in September, faces a built-in hurdle. The home to Microsoft Corp. has a helmet law that history shows will sink its bike-sharing dream.

In Melbourne, Australia, the prospect of a A$185 ($172) fine for not wearing a helmet has resulted in rows of unused bikes. In Mexico City, a law making head protection obligatory was repealed almost instantly and residents flocked.

Helmet Turn-off

“Mandatory helmets is a massive deterrent,” said Meddin.

What makes cycling safer is having more bikers on the road, he said. The evidence would seem to support this. In London, the first fatality on the so-called Boris Bike -- named after Mayor Boris Johnson -- happened three years and more than 22 million rides into the initiative. The 37 programs in the U.S., led by the Citigroup Inc.-sponsored New York system, have been death-free, according to Reuters.

For 40-year-old New Yorker Seth Nemeroff, Citi Bike was a godsend. The financial consultant left his pregnant wife at their Gramercy Park home to listen to author Malcolm Gladwell at Bryant Park. The talk had barely started when he got a 6:45 p.m. text saying she’d gone into labor.

In rush-hour traffic, the journey back would have taken 40 minutes, he said. On a Citi bike, it took him 7 minutes. Just in time to take his wife to hospital -- by taxi.

“I’d have never made it otherwise,” he said.

Gate Crasher

New York was late to the party -- six years after Paris, three after London. Like other American cities, it battled a culture and urban landscape built around cars.

Yet in just over a year, more than 100,000 people signed up to use 6,200 bikes. Supply hasn’t kept up with demand. At 8:30 a.m., the racks outside Penn Station -- the most popular of the solar-powered stations -- can often be empty.

A key challenge for planners is how to bring the fleets to low-income communities. From New York to London, bikes are located in affluent areas where sponsors want to be seen.

Most European and American cities rely on sponsorship income and user fees. By contrast, in China, it’s all public funding.

London doubled its prices in 2013 and Barclays Plc, which paid 25 million pounds ($41 million) to brand the bikes with its logo and trademark blue, won’t extend its contract past 2015.

Bumps in Road

This raises the question of whether bike-sharing programs, even when popular, can -- or should -- make money while serving the public. Canada’s Public Bike System Co., the supplier to New York and Washington, filed for bankruptcy protection in January, citing almost $50 million in debt.

In New York, new investors are now having to be brought in to fund an expansion. Citi Bike’s next operators -- planning to add bikes to Queens and untapped parts of Brooklyn -- may increase the annual membership fee by almost 50 percent to $140.

Deirdre Leahy, a spokeswoman for Citi Bike, declined to comment on pricing. New Yorkers living in public housing are entitled to a $35 discount.

As debt-addled cities ponder the financial viability of the schemes, the next generation of bikes is getting a test run in Copenhagen. They come with a snazzy electric motor and GPS map navigation on a computer tablet.

With a price tag of $7,600 each, it won’t come cheap for the taxpayer. To Morten Kabell, a deputy mayor who pushed for program, money should be no object.

“If you want people to quit cars you need to offer them a quality alternative,” he said.

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