Barcelonas Bike Sharing System

by : Gaizka Pujana

At the start of summer this year, the Ajuntament (Council) of Barcelona launched the first phase of a new public transport initiative that was designed to provide a cheap, convenient and environmentally friendly solution to an increasingly crowded metro and bus system in the city of Barcelona.

It seemed an innovative and progressive solution. Residents would register online and for a modest fee of 24 euros per year, order a 12 month membership smart card that would allow them to borrow a bike for up to 2 hours from one of 100 strategically located bike stations, outside metro and bus stops and heavy traffic areas in the main arterial zones of the city.

All users would have to do is swipe their card at their nearest bike station to unlock a bike from the rack. With a free half hour to return the bike to any station in the city, and a modest 30 euro cent fee for additional half hour increments, the idea seems affordable and clever.

But affordable and clever also seem to be the characteristics that have led to problems with the system. Encouraged by the offer of a half price registration fee until July 6th, 80,000 users had signed up within the first three months. Great to have a strong public response, but not so great when the system currently only supports 1,500 bikes.

Another major hurdle is an apparent underestimation of demand for return space in popular areas such as La Rambla and beach areas around Barceloneta. Users are reporting frustration when trying to return bikes at racks already full with no available return space, and little choice but to ride on and hope that there will be room for their bike at the next station.

Damaged bikes are also proving to be a hassle. Designed to be lightweight and easy to ride, many bikes are quickly rendered useless by slipping gears, faulty brakes and broken bells and lights.

'Its not uncommon to roll up to a rack with several bikes, only be told by the screen that none of them are available because they're broken' says Gemma, who I meet at the bike rack at the bottom of Rambla de Raval.

'Its also not uncommon to take a bike from the rack and have to return it because the gears are slipping or the seat wobbles. Several times this has happened to me and I've returned it only to find it was the only available bike.'

Whilst the Bicing website has a real-time count of how many bikes are available at each station, the stations themselves don't. Gemmas options are then to walk on to the next station and hope that there are available bikes, or wait at the station in the hope that someone will return their bike shortly. 'Not exactly convenient if you have somewhere to be' she says.

Gemma doesn't appear to be the only one with frustrations. On a hot Sunday afternoon I watch as a que of three Bicing hopefulls sigh as another rider passes their rack without returning their bike. The next three bike racks I pass, none of which are empty, also have people waiting.

Lucas, second in line tells me he's only been waiting 20 minutes. Then adds that in that 20 minutes, he could have arrived at his destination if he had caught the metro.

Although support trucks can be seen circulating the city, to check and maintain the bikes and to re-shuffle distribution if one stand becomes full and others are left empty, but they don't appear to be working fast enough to cope with the demand.

Another user, Daniel tells me that he doesn't use the bikes when he is going to work, a meeting or anything important. 'They're too un-reliable, so I only use them on the weekend when I have time to spare' he says. 'It's a good idea. A nice way to travel around the city but I don't think the original purpose of Bicing was meant to be for recreational use.'

Daniels speculation is supported by the words of the Spanish Minster for the Environment, Cristina Narbona when during a publicity event in May she visited the Bicing rack in Plaza Catalunya: 'it is a good measure for combating climate change and making a contribution towards sustainability in the major cities', she said.

She added that combining use of public transport systems already in place, Bicing would help to reduce emissions caused by the citys residents. A valid motivation perhaps, but if the reality of the system is inefficiency and unreliability, is it really possible that Bicing is going to last long enough to be able to make a difference?

Early trials in Amsterdam and Cambridge in the UK were abandoned when theft of the bikes and poor management saw the system collapse before it could catch up in enough popularity to make further investment in the idea a possibility.

In an article published by the Spanish newspaper El Pais, a spokesman for the Barcelona de Servicios Municipales says 'I dont believe that there is a serious imbalance between supply and demand. In any case, the service is still not 100% up and running.'

That may be so, but this in itself raises the question of why the release of Bicing was not better planned to cope with the response from the public? Originally, stage one and two of the plan was to see the release of only 750 bikes. Ahead of schedule, Bicing had completed more new stations and released more bikes than the expected dates.

It seems at the very least, the Adjuntament seriously underestimated the demand for the niche of the public transport system the bikes were designed to fill.

Barcelona isn't the first European city to launch a public bike sharing system. Models such as the one in Paris, due to be released on July 15th, will be launched with an initial release of 10,600 bikes and 750 stations, set to be doubled by the start of 2008.

Unlike Bicing in Barcelona, the system in Paris is a prepaid scheme. Users must not only register their credit card details, but they also pay an upfront security deposit, and upfront 'credit' for bike rental, which be topped up when the user runs out, before they can rent again. The bikes are also fitted with a lock and alarm system, which are activated if the bike is not returned on time, to deter theft and damage of the bikes.

The system is also more expensive in Paris, with half hour increments after the first one for free being charged out at 1 euro. Organisers of Velib, which means 'free bike' in French, developed the Paris model from a previously launched trial which was first successful in Lyons.

Advertising company JC Decaux, operator of both systems reported high start up and development costs in Lyons, but after a couple of glitches, the system is now running successfully, leading to the development of the model in Paris.

One of the biggest problems in Lyons was the theft of almost half of the original fleet of 2,000 bikes, but this led to the establishment of the upfront security deposit which Paris will be enforcing from day one of its operation. If a bike is not returned within 24 hours, the deposit will be forfeited and the users card de-activated.

It seems that by placing more responsibility of the users of the system,the company has managed to induce a reduction of damage and theft of the fleet. Today the system in Lyons is running with double the fleet size it started with, and less loss of profit due to misuse and theft.

The Paris branch is being funded largely by prepaid advertising space, allowing the company to launch the project with a much larger fleet and relatively short turn around time for increasing its size by next year. Clearly, the organisers have learnt some valuable lessons and are preparing for a smoother launch this month in Paris.

Whilst it would be unfair to expect the Barcelona city council to have the resources and experience of JC Decaux, we can only hope that the Ajuntament is learning from its mistakes, and that public interest in Bicing will remain long enough for the council to catch up with supply and demand. With plans to extend operations to include bike rental to tourists in coming months, Bicing has its work cut out to sort out these initial problems.

Before leaving with her bike, Gemma says to me 'I hope it works out, because this city is really made to be experienced on a bike. Its so nice to be riding around in the sun with the fresh sea air.'

The public's response really shows that people want to use the service. Lets hope the Ajuntament of Barcelona can lose the training wheels and allow Bicing to ride smoothly on into the future.