When Bike Sharing Falters (and Why We Can't Let It)

Bicing logo bike photo

Photo credit by batega via flickr.

In its early days, Barcelona's Bicing seemed like an unparalleled success. With 400 stations and 3,000 of the squat, burly red-and-white bikes stationed around the city, Bicing quickly became part of Barcelona's big city atmosphere and was enthusiastically received by inhabitants.

But after five years, something scary started to happen, in addition to the vandalism and abandonment that plagued Bicing and other big programs...ridership started to decline.

Bicing bike photo

Photo credit Miguel Frutos via flickr.

Consider the statistics. While in 2009, Barcelona added 10% more kilometers to its bike paths, trips by bike dropped 5.6% percent from 2008's "high" of 1.39 to just above 1%.

Bicing's performance was even drearier- while memberships rose by .1% in 2009 and the number of Bicing stations increased from 390 to 419 (an impressive increase), the number of Bicing trips fell a whopping 12.5%...in the middle of a recession.

Things got even worse between June 2009 and June 2010 - if these statistics are correct: the Bicing service lost 74,000 users in the course of that year, going from a high of 191,000 to a low of 113,000.

What was the reason for this precipitous drop? The Ajuntament of Barcelona doesn't speculate in its mobility report, but there's a big clue in the data on motorcycle ownership - the same year that cycling was lagging, motorcycles increased from around 42,000 to around 64,000. Darting motorcycles, in fact, are one of the elements of Barcelona city life that is most intimidating.

While the squat and heavy nature of the Bici makes it perfect for literally cruising around the wide flat streests of city, the variety of mopeds, e-bikes and motorcycles can make the streets feel unfriendly as they race around, dart in between the cars, bikes, and pedestrians, and (in many, not all cases) leaving a trail of stinky exhaust in their wake. This is not to say that bike riders never dart in traffic. Motorized bikes just dart faster.

As if the ridership fall wasn't worry enough, in the first part of 2010, Bicing experienced computer data problems that interrupted service on a handful of occasions,

Bicing has rallied recently by adding an iPhone app, installing new technology to help control the common plague of brake tampering, and experiencing a drop in vandalism and bike abandonment.

It remains to be seen whether Bicing can recover its former levels of usage (or whether it even wants to - this article (in Spanish only) speculates that fewer users was one of the reasons vandalism and abandonment have dropped.

But the reasons why a bike share like Bicing is worth maintaining are these:

- bike routes are generally cheaper to build than new roads
- increased bike traffic is CO2 free traffic
- biking, for low or moderate effort, can be a highly effective community health enhancement
- bikes and bike lanes are a proven traffic calming method that lower speeds and reduce death and injuries for all road users.

In addition, there's also the incalcuable public relations boost cities with bike sharing get from citizens and tourists alike. In every city I visit, the presence of a bike share signals a number of things to me, all of them positive.

Read more about TreeHugger's view of bike sharing:
Bike Share Programs Becoming Increasingly Popular at College Campuses
Cykel: A Plug-in Electric Bike Sharing Concept
Bike Sharing, the Next Generation: It Floats, It Flashes, It Practically Follows You

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