Riding the trend how bikes are challenging the mighty automobile

Explore • Pulse #2 • 8 min
By Richard Venturi

The 20th century was in many ways the century of the automobile. Architects and urban planners reshaped entire cities, building all manner of bridges, tunnels, expressways, freeways and parkways to accommodate private vehicles. But as cities have become increasingly congested and polluted, and the environment plus quality of life have taken on heightened importance over the past two decades, the humble bicycle has begun to make definite inroads into urban public transport.


According to the consultancy Roland Berger, there were about 1,000 urban bike sharing schemes in 2016 worldwide, with more than 1.2 million bikes in cities. What’s more, the global market is expected to grow by 20% per year by 2020, reaching a total size of between 3.6 and 5.3 billion (€). A number of factors lie behind the surge in the use of bicycles as a mode of transport in urban areas. For one, urbanisation has increased rapidly around the world in recent decades, with the UN estimating in 2007 that for the first time in history more than 50% of the world’s population lived in urban areas. As a result, bikes are increasingly seen as a viable alternative to the polluting car in crowded urban spaces.

In addition to urbanisation, as digital technology has become widespread, people are now able to connect to vehicles and infrastructure in real time easily via their smartphones. Bikeshares across the globe today make common use of this technology. Not only can users rent using their smartphones, but transit authorities and operators can manage flows and maintenance operations effectively.

“Beyond the spread of cities and the rise of digital technology, the past decade has seen the emergence of new consumer behaviour, where people are more comfortable with paying to share instead of owning. This is the so-called ‘sharing economy’ ”, explains Yann Rudermann, CEO of Cykleo, a Keolis subsidiary dedicated to active mobilities. Local governments are in tune with all of this. And as they are looking to tackle pollution, environmental degradation and make cities more liveable, they have taken advantage of the new technology and consumer behaviour to foster the use of bicycles as an alternative mode of transport.  In short, the conditions are perfect for bicycles to proliferate in urban transit networks for many years to come.


Bike sharing systems have come a long way since their surprising origins in the famously bicycle-friendly Netherlands.

In 1965, a group of Dutch anarchists decided to rattle the establishment and challenge the hegemony of automobiles on Amsterdam’s narrow streets by painting bicycles white and leaving them unlocked in public for anyone to use. Needless to say, the “white bicycle plan”, as it was known, was quickly nipped in the bud by the police. Fast forward to Copenhagen in 1995, where a system with stations was developed. Customers would deposit coins to unlock bicycles. But bike sharing really began to show signs of promise a few years later in the city of Rennes in western France when US media company Clear Channel Communications developed a precursor to today’s widespread schemes, paid for by advertising. Using information technology (IT) and docking stations, it allowed users to locate and access bicycles.

Vienna was the next to give bike sharing its impetus, launching theVienna bike system three years later in 2001. And though it had shortcomings it went on to enjoy significant success when it was rebranded and relaunched as Citybike Wien in 2003. The major breakthrough came in 2005, when the city of Lyon launched the first truly largescale self-service bike rental scheme, using docking stations and IT and mainly paid for by advertising. This was followed two years later by Paris’ groundbreaking bike-sharing system, Vélib, which proved that such a scheme could be successfully used for daily transport in a large and dense metropolis. “As self-service bike-sharing systems have spread, so has the use of personal bicycles as a means of urban transport. At the same time, electric bicycles have become an increasingly common sight on city roads, adds Yann Rudermann. Public authorities have caught on and here too are encouraging the use of this alternative to personal vehicles: Norway, Sweden and France have all decided to subsidise to varying degrees the purchase of electric bikes. ”


Today, there are currently three models for bike-sharing schemes. The pioneering and dominant one in Western cities is the self- service system with docking stations. Users can either pay for individual trips or purchase an annual subscription, unlocking a bike from one station and docking at a station near their destination. These systems work well when there are a certain number of users, and when transport authorities work in close partnership with operators, sharing work and costs. The bikes obviously have to be maintained and flows have to be regulated to a certain extent.

These are anchored in the cityscape, providing a reliable means of transport in the form of sturdy bikes, which are often high-end. They can be electrically assisted, make use of GPS and even have vibrating handlebars. What’s more, the bikeshares make use of cleaner technologies such as solar power for the docking posts and information kiosks. There are now hundreds of these systems around the world. The other model competing for users in urban areas is the dockless bikeshare (the so-called free-floating system), which was developed in China and has spread throughout Europe and North America. The scheme consists of bicycles equipped with GPS trackers and digital locks. Users simply download an app on their smartphone and use it to locate and unlock a nearby bike. They then ride it to their destination and simply leave it wherever they choose.

The free-floating schemes have been hugely popular in China, and their clear advantage for transit authorities is the lack of investment and infrastructure needed in getting them up and running. But make no mistake…

“Despite their success in Asia and apparent ingenuity, they do, however, have several drawbacks, warns Rudermann. The quality of the bikes, for one, tends to be lacking. They cost about seven to eight times less than bikes used in self-service dock schemes, which means they are particularly susceptible to mechanical failures and vandalism. Added to this is the lack of maintenance due to the business model, which tends to focus more on short-term profitability. There is consequently the problem of locating a bike only to find it is broken. This has resulted in highly non-sustainable practices in China, for example, with thousands of used bikes ending up literally dumped in fields.”

The third model consists of long-term bike rental for use in suburban areas, where there is a lack of urban density to make a bikeshare practical and profitable – i.e. docking stations need to be separated by relatively short distances. It targets users who are looking for a quality bicycle to use over longer periods of time but aren’t willing to purchase one. The advantage is the user has an affordable option – which they can pay for on a monthly basis, for example – and they don’t have to commit in the long term. What’s more, employers and authorities can subsidise such rentals, much more easily than the purchase of a personal bicycle. There is also an operator available to service and maintain the bike when needed.


One thing is having thousands of bicycles available for use on the streets, another is making sure they are fully integrated into the network as a real shared transport mode. Public transport authorities have a large role to play in fostering this by instituting local policies that link the use of bicycles to urban transit.

“The full integration of bikes in the transport network is key to guaranteeing the efficiency and attractiveness of the whole network, explains Rudermann. Indeed, public transportation must be thought of in its entirety, from door to door, regardless of the reason and mode of transport. While mass transit remains vital to conveying people in urban areas, it is, increasingly complemented by flexible and ‘softer’ modes, such as autonomous shuttles and bicycles. These modes are better suited to the so-called last mile – i.e. from the transport hub to the final destination.”

This includes measures like creating bike lanes, putting in place parking spaces and bike shelters, multi-modal information and signage, joint ticketing, combined fares and joint mobility applications that cover bike stations, paths and parking options along routes. In short, what authorities did for the personal automobile in the postwar decades, arguably, must be done for bicycles.

The French city of Dijon offers an example of how bicycles can become part and parcel of an urban transport network. For the first time in France, this city has recently signed a comprehensive mobility contract with Keolis to operate its public transport, car parks and short- and long-term bike rentals (400 short-term and 800 long-term rental bikes at 40 different stations). The idea is to eliminate the frequent debate between individual transport and public transport, by promoting the shared use of public space.


Full integration of bikes in the city landscape has to be considered alongside the question of security. Cyclists must be able to coexist with both vehicles and pedestrians. The number of cyclists being fatally injured on the roads in the US continues to be of concern. Bikes are a special case as they can access spaces reserved for vehicles and pedestrian areas. For this to work smoothly, besides creating bike lanes and making them safe, cyclists themselves must be educated so as to allow them to integrate seamlessly in urban traffic, be it motorised or not. This raises the question of a bike license to help usher in the transition to complete acceptance of bicycles as a full-fledged and integral part of mass transit.

Denmark is an example of a country that has achieved progress in this area. By investing heavily in cycling infrastructure in Copenhagen, for instance, bicycle traffic has risen by no less than 68% in the past two decades, however the number of accidents remains small, allowing cycling to become a normal part of city life.

The road has certainly been long, and the competition in the form of the automobile has been stiff. Yet despite the bumps and hurdles along the way, there is no turning back : bicycles as a mode of urban mobility are very much a part of city life in the 21st century. The question is how to fully anchor, extend and secure their use. But if the success of bikeshares across the world over the past decade is anything to go by, the humble bicycle has already won the race.


Paving the way for autonomous mobility

While self-driving cars may be getting all the attention, driverless shuttles are on the cusp of reshaping urban transport. Indeed, they are one of the first modes of autonomous mobility to become operational, with tests having started in several cities in 2016 and the first fleets expected to be deployed by 2021.

Pulse #1 6 min

The quiet rise of water transport

Waterfront cities around the world are increasingly embracing ferry transport as a means of combatting crowding, especially during rush hour. In almost every case, ridership has surpassed official predictions, causing transport authorities to wonder: are ferries ready to go mainstream?

Pulse #3 4 min