By Elizabeth Khuri Chandler and video content by Kirsten Dirksen of faircompanies.com
On an unusually hot afternoon this spring, the streets of Barcelona are filled with bicyclist commuters -- university students zipping down wide avenues, business men in slim-cut suits, and the elderly, navigating a busy intersection on two shaky wheels. Many of these users have just picked up the sport thanks to the city's Bicing program, which after only two years, has evolved from a novelty to a force of change, affecting the flow of traffic across the entire city.
While the United States continues to dither with small-scale programs in Washington DC, San Francisco, New York and Denver (Denver has 50 bikes, DC has a program & SF says they'll have a pilot program), Europe has nailed down the shared-bike program cold. France's Vélib, with 20,000 bikes, may be the world's largest initiative, but Barcelona's Bicing is touted as one of the most successful.
The underpinnings of the program have less to do with environmental sustainability and more to do with the flow of people. "The Bicing project is a consequence of the mobility policy of the city--its effects on traffic, and as also as sustainable element inside of the mobility of the city," Ramon Ferreiro, an official with Bicing, says. Bicing is Barcelona's way to pacify traffic, prioritize walkers and bicyclists.
From an urban planning perspective, the city is ideal for a shared bike program. A pleasant climate, flat roads, and crowded center make the project palatable to urban dwellers. Haritz Ferrando of the Bicycle Club of Catalonia adds that the density-factor is the number one criteria for success. People want to grab a bike for short trips and local errands he explains.
Even before the program began, Barcelona had a robust bicycling community and lanes installed on major arteries to support two-wheeled travelers. In 1995, nearly 30,000 people were commuting to work everyday by bicycle, Ferreiro says. The city also had a successful model to follow from nearby France.
Early adopter programs, such as the "white bike" program in Amsterdam in 1968, fizzled out because bikes were stolen for personal use. A small program in Rennes, France, in 1998, first used electronic tags on the bicycles, but it wasn't until 2005 when the city of Lyon adopted the same tagging method and attracted 15,000 users in less than three months, that other cities took notice.
Barcelonans pay a yearly fee of 30 Euros to receive a personalized and magnetized smart card, which allows them to remove a bike from a mechanized dock. The first half-hour is free and each additional 30 minutes are 30 cents. Credit card information is stored online and members can return bikes at lock stations all over the city.
When the Barcelona first instituted the program in 2006 with 1,500 bikes and 100 different docking points, the program was a success but fueled a rash of complaints. Car owners were annoyed that parking spaces were removed for bike racks, and pedestrians were not thrilled about sharing narrow sidewalks with bikers. The city reviewed their program and realized that they would need additional road improvements.
In fact, the infrastructure for the biking program is what seems to be thrusting the city's traffic policy into the future. In addition to creating 80 miles of bike lanes, enlarging sidewalks and bus lanes, they've taken the controversial step of lowering speed limits throughout the city. In the inner areas, the speed is 18 miles per hour and on basic roads leading into the city, the maximum speed is 31 miles per hour.
Today, the landscape of the city is entirely different from what it was two years ago. More than 6,000 bicycles are on the streets, with 375 docking stations throughout the city. It's not uncommon to see vans redistributing bikes throughout the city and taking them off the road for servicing.
Ferreiro says that the new model recognizes the hierarchy of transport. That's not to say that they've banished cars to the suburbs, but the city has been able to reduce the number of cars coming into Barcelona by 15 percent. And the bikers love it. "This system is a good system," law student Grecia Borja says. "If you're in a bad mood and you don't want to take the bicycle you can take the transport and if you want to make a little bit of exercise you put your card in there and take a bike."
Even an idealistic light, the program is not cheap. At more than 13 million dollars a year, Bicing is financed through parking fees, member's dues, and a partnership with sponsor Clear Channel. Unlike Paris and Lyon, which support their bike programs through advertising, the city pays for a large portion of their program. But Ferreiro argues that even though Bicing is expensive, the program has been revolutionary. "Space has to be shared," Ferreiro says, "Cities will have to evolve toward a model that is more sustainable, more environmental model and more friendly toward people. I imagine some day there will be residential areas where children can play on the streets."
Meanwhile, the rest of Europe continues to volley forward: Pamplona, Spain; Rennes, France; Düsseldorf, Germany and Rome (Roma'n'Bike) have programs. And it begs the question, would the US ever take on a bike-sharing program on a massive scale? At least a few cities are beginning to think differently about the priority of cars their centers. New York has announced plans to turn a portion of Broadway Ave. into a pedestrian zone in Midtown Manhattan, and San Francisco is currently considering similar measures for thoroughfare Market Street. As for a large-scale bike program, we're still waiting. Here's hoping for a hot, flat and crowded city with 10 million to burn.