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From Amsterdam to Beijing: The Global Evolution of Bike Share

Despite being nearly 50 years old, bike share is only recently seeing widespread international growth. However, with better data and improved models, bike share's future looks extremely bright. (Photo: LesHaines / Flickr)

Nossa Cidade ("Our City"), from TheCityFix Brasil, explores critical questions for building more sustainable cities. Every month features a new theme. Leaning on the expertise of researchers and specialists in WRI's sustainable urban mobility team in Brazil, the series will feature in depth articles on urban planning, sustainable mobility, gender, resilience, and other key themes for sparking more sustainable development in our cities.

In 1965, Amsterdam implemented what is now considered the first bike share system in history. Known as Witte Fietsen ("White Bikes" in English), the program collected bicycles, painted them white, and simply placed them on the streets for public use. However, without any payment system or dedicated locks, many of the bicycles were quickly damaged and stolen, bringing the project to a halt. While Witte Fietsen's implementationseemed like a failure, the project was an important first step for bike share.

Due to this rough start, public bike share took years to become popular. Even in the 1990s—nearly thirty years later—bike share systems remained largely insignificant, not even reaching a total of ten worldwide.

It was only in the 2000s, and particularly within the last decade, that bike share would catch on. The transport mode grew from just 13 in 2004 to 855 in 2014—an increase of 6,477 percent. Today, the number of bicycles available through sharing programs is estimated at 946,000 bikes, most of which (750,000) are in China.

Although China has the greatest number of bike share systems for a single country (237 in total) the majority are located throughout Europe. And among all bike shares, Paris's Vélib is the largest in the world. Currently, the French program has 1,205 stations and nearly 20,000 bikes that have helped make 253 million total trips – an average of 86,000 per day. In its 8 years of operation, Vélib recorded the highest rates of use in September of 2013, with each bike making 8 trips per day

Paris may have the largest bike share in the world—but its program is also perhaps the most creative. In June 2014, the city launched P'tit Vélib, an initiative providing bikes to children. These bikes come in four models designated for different age groups (each with their own uniquely colored helmet). The program not only makes cycling more accessible for a range of age groups, it also helps foster an open and inclusive bike culture.

A map of the Vélib stations located throughout Paris. (Graphic: Vélib Paris)

Outside of Europe and China, Brazil has also had success with bike share, with more than 20 cities having developed local systems. For example, Brasília and Sao Paulo boast the two largest programs, with 400 and 285 stations respectively. Also notable is Rio de Janeiro's bike share, which in its four years of operation already accounts for 6.2 million total trips; São Paulo's system, on the other hand, has only made 1.3 million trips.

The Importance of Open Data

Comprehensive, accurate data is critical for researchers and decision makers interested in knowing what makes a successful bike share system. As a result, an increasing number of think-tanks and civil society organizations are calling for open data from local governments so that the public can understand bike share's impact.

One such study, Bikeshare: A Review of Recent Literature, was published in April of this year and collected global data on the expansion of bike share, who and how it is being used, and its impact on road safety. The researchers found that public bicycle share has reduced the number of kilometers traveled by motor vehicles in various cities across the globe.

In 2010, Oliver O'Brien, a researcher at the Department of Geography at UCL (University College London) working with digital cartography and data visualization, created a Bike Share Map. Updated in real time, the map shows the location of bike share stations in 150 cities across the world, and has become one of the easiest ways for users to get updated on information on their local bike programs.

Publications and tools like these allow decision makers to understand the dynamics of bike share systems and monitor travel patterns—ultimately enabling better urban and transport planning. Integrating bike share with other modes of transport is critical for sustainable urban mobility. An integrated system improves travel times and raises individuals' quality of life.

This article was originally published in Portuguese on TheCityFix Brasil.