Almost every city in Europe has come up with a bicycle renting scheme for commuters who are looking for last mile connectivity. It is time Indian cities followed suit, says M.A. Siraj

Cities in the West are rediscovering bicycles. After nearly a century of motoring around their cities, the commuters are now being persuaded to take to bicycles for intra-city movement. Four years ago, Paris introduced a self-service, public bicycle transit system called “Velib.” But Paris is only the latest among several European capitals to set up such a system to provide bicycles for hire at a nominal cost to people for point-to-point movement within the city.

Needing no fossil fuels, bicycles are inexpensive, non-polluting, less prone to accidents, claim less space on roads and less injurious to user if it does not involve an accident against an automobile. Having experimented with several alternatives for mass transit, city fathers all over Europe are almost unanimous that a public bicycle system could ensure the best last mile connectivity to individual commuters.

Since it was started in July 2007, Parisians and visitors alike are able to pick up and drop off bicycles throughout the city at 750 locations — offering a total of 20,600 bikes. A ‘Velib’ station has been set up after approximately every 900 ft. for a total of 1,451 locations.

To hire the bikes, riders select a one-day card for one euro, a weekly card for five euros or an annual card for 29 euros. After the purchase of an access card, riding for the first half-hour is free and a supplement of one euro is charged for an additional half-hour, two euros for another 30 minutes and four euros for every addition half-hour after that.

Each ‘Velib’ parking station is equipped with muni-meters to purchase one- and seven-day passes and to pay any additional charges once the bike is dropped off. The ‘Velib’ meters also provide information on other station locations.

Application forms for the annual card are made available at district city halls, 300 métro stations and 400 pastry shops throughout the city. But before all this, the municipal authorities of the city laid over 371 km (230 miles) of cycling lanes along the roads.

The Paris system is financed by the JCDecaux advertising corporation, in return for the city of Paris signing over the income from a substantial portion of billboard advertising on streets. It won the contract over a rival firm. JCDecaux paid start-up costs of about $115 million and employs 285 people full-time to operate the system and repair the bikes for 10 years.

The city receives all revenue from the programme as well as a fee of about $4.3 million a year. In return, JCDecaux receives exclusive control over 1,628 city-owned billboards; the city receives about half of that billboard space at no charge for public-interest advertising.

While Paris may have set up largest of such bike renting mechanisms, several such systems have been operational in several European cities. Barcelona has ‘Bicing’; Brussels and Luxembourg have Vel'oh; Lyon in France has Vélo'v; in Nantes it is called ‘Bicloo’; in the cities of Toulouse, Marseille and Milan, the system is known as ‘BikeMi’; in Stockholm it is christened as ‘Cemusa’ while six German cities — Berlin, Frankfurt, Cologne, Stuttgart, Munich, and Karlsruhe — have ‘Call a bike’; Copenhagen, Helsinki and Aarhus abbreviate it to ‘CIOS’. In the cities of Oslo, Sandnes and Seville it is known as ‘Sevici’.

The original electronically managed model (‘Bikeabout’) was set up in Portsmouth University in the U.K. in 1996 from which entire Europe learned a lot of lessons. Copenhagen introduced the free bicycles programmes under ‘bicycklen cobenhavn,’ providing 1,300 free bikes chained to racks. It proved quite popular and locals took to it for being environmentally progressive. Today however, you need to pick up a bicycle by paying 20 Danish kroners, equivalent of $3.

Monitored

Invariably all these bikes across Europe are sturdy, utilitarian vehicles which are less attractive for thieves for their ‘well-knownness’, as an official of ‘Velib’ in Paris points out. Bikers who do not return the bikes to their station are fined heavily and they can be tracked through the ‘Velib Access ID Cards’. However, in some cases, some stolen bicycles have been shipped to eastern Europe or across Africa. In case of mechanical fault, the bikers turn the seat 180 degree so as to point backwards making it easy for the servicemen to pick up faulty bicycles without much hassles.

Even the Americans are opting for bikes in big number, weather permitting. Though largely used for sightseeing, the bike rentals operating under various names are increasingly popular for fun rides, exercise and pleasure rides in trails, along beaches and inside forests and hills. ‘Bike Chicago’ and ‘Bike and roll’ offer the bikes at the city’s famed Navy Pier for a variety of purposes. Almost every city has of late developed some bike-renting programme. However, with relatively less constrains on urban space, biking is bound to remain a highly limited option for mobility.

This new phase in European city commuting is worth a thought for us Indians. It is time bicycles are made popular among city folks as well as visitors for their easy mobility, eco-friendly nature, inexpensive maintenance, and the potential for physical exercise that they offer to impart without having a toll on time.