City Bikes: The good, the bad and the ugly

According to a Danish study, every kilometer you cycle, society gains around 2,1 kronor, but every kilometer you drive, it loses 1,5 kronor. I know. These numbers are quite abstract and probably do not resonate with you. So how about this; with every cyclist gained in a city, a subway or bus commuter is lost. If you have experienced and barely survived the T-bana or bus at rush-hour, this should have you jumping for joy (if not directly onto a saddle). Bikes promote health and exercise, curb pollution and fluidify traffic. These are some of the reasons why, for the past decade, in a desperate effort to drag its citizens away from the steering wheels or underground tunnels, a thousand or more cities have implemented bike-sharing systems. The concept of bike sharing is simple: government-funded bikes can be found all around the city, docked to ‘smart’ stations. All you need then is a credit card or bike pass to rent the bike for a few hours.

How it all began
The history of bicycle-sharing, not surprisingly, begins in the Netherlands with Luud Schimmelpennink. As a political statement against the system, he introduced ‘white bikes’ in 1965 across the city of Amsterdam. Anyone could use these (and hopefully bring them back) at no cost. The government, always the party poopers, confiscated the bikes, putting an end to the project.

Then, in the mid-1990s, a second generation of bike-sharing was born. it was Copenhagen, again not surprisingly, which implemented the first official, government-supported bicycle-sharing system, where you rented a bike against a deposit of a few coins. The one weakness of this system: having too much faith in people’s decency. Indeed, due to anonymity as well as the low cost of the deposit (about the same amount you would give for a supermarket caddy), most of the bikes got stolen.

A third generation of bike-sharing programmes came about in the late 90s and early 00s in Germany and France. These introduced ‘smart’ docking stations where credit or subscription cards could be inserted to release the rental bike. This removed anonymity and increased accountability. You could still run away with one of their bikes, but now they could retaliate with your personal and credit card details at hand. It was however only after the implementation of the large-scale, successful and thus trendsetting Velib’ program in 2007 in Paris, that bike-sharing programmes became widespread across the world. Despite being french and wanting to give all the glory to my nation, I must give credit where credit is due; the man behind both the Copenhagen and Paris bike-shares was the one and only Dutch bicycle superstar Luud Schimmelpennink; the father of all bike-shares.

Stockholm City Bikes
So what about Stockholm in all of this? Whilst not as famous as the Netherlands or Copenhagen, our city is extremely bicycle friendly. If you look down at the ground as you walk, you will note that the bike paths are larger than the pedestrian ones. You may have also experienced the heart stopping woosh of bicycles as they zoom past you at reckless speed on the sidewalk. When you yourself are on the bike (and realize cyclist are no less aggressive than when you were a pedestrian), you will almost never have to share the road with cars, the bike paths being extensive and frequent.

As for the bike-sharing system, in 2006, the Stockholm City Council implemented the ‘City Bikes’, a system similar to what can be found in Paris, London, Copenhagen or even Beijing. It is the result of a partnership between the city of Stockholm and the outdoor advertising unit Clear Channel Communication (the reason for the colourful advertising placed upon the bike’s wheels). The bikes are available from April to October, from 6am to 10pm and subscriptions are either 3-days (165 SEK) or season-long (300 SEK). The maximal rental period is 3 hours. The technology-savvy city have also developed an app which provides information on station location and bike availability.

City Bikes at Campus Solna

Room for improvement
‘City Bikes’ are far from perfect, but no programme is. Paris has too few bike lanes. London only allows 30 minute long rides and Barcelona’s BiCing programme is only available to citizens and residents. What about Stockholm? As of 2018, the current contract will expire. Stockholm City Council and the traffic office are thus working to develop and improve the current system.

So, what exactly is in dire need of change? First things first. City Bikes have 150 docking stations and around 1500 bikes. The stations are therefore spaced far apart from one another and finding a station emptied of all its bike is too frequent an occurrence. Cough *Karolinska* cough. More than once, I ended up locking my City Bike to a pole and limiting my fika, visit or swim to less than three hours – because there was simply no station within a 20 minute radius of my location. There are also some popular or practical areas such as Djurgarden or central station which simply lack bicycles.

Another important issue is the brevity of the bike rental season: City Bikes only run from April to October. I know that the Stockholm winter seems interminable but it’s not five months long either. We don’t live in Narnia. So how about extending the season a few more months, or even the whole year? From the cosy seat of the bus, I have witnessed many commuters biking in the coldest, darkest days of winter. Of course, this confirms my belief that Stockholmers are just a tad bit insane. But should we not reward and encourage insanity if it promotes health and gives me more seating space on the heated bus? Continuing on the theme of time-frame: bikes are not available after 10 pm. You know what else is not available after 10 pm? Subways and buses!

The most troublesome flaw is the bike themselves. Have you tried biking up a hill with these bikes and their so called three ‘gears’?  I have died so many times halfway up the most ridiculously small hills. This type of bike may work in flat lands such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam – but just the hill between Gamla Stan and Slussen is reason enough to consider a few more gears and a better mechanism.

“City Bikes have 150
docking stations and
around 1500 bikes.”

Whilst this article may seem only to cover my personal grievances, a recent 2017 survey of a thousand City Bikes users commissioned by the programme confirms what I have laid out above. The most important changes needed were  bike volume, geographic availability and longer hours, closely followed by newer bikes and a year-round season.

So what now?
To solve these problems, the City Council must study other cities for inspiration. Which they have. Copenhagen and the Netherlands have already been visited. But how about hopping on a plane to Paris and witnessing the programme that launched a thousand programmes? Paris has around 1800 stations, located every 100 meter, and 200,000 bicycles. Whilst you may argue Paris is a tad bigger and its population ever so slightly denser than Stockholm, this difference remains a considerable one.

The Stockholm council has vowed to increase the number of stations and thus increase connectivity and availability. The aim is to implement a bike station at every T-bana exit and to combine your City Bike and SL subscriptions onto one card. This could elevate bicycles to a competitive alternative to buses for commuters emerging from the depths of subway lines. Goodbye number 3 commute to KI, hello City Bike ride.

Stockholm City Council has also declared that they will increase time availability for biking as well as the length of the season, as well as increasing the choice of subscription types. They are thus addressing the bigger flaws within the system, which they project will cost around 215 million SEK.

Whilst these are considerable changes, more can still be done to elevate City Bike to a decent alternative to other forms of public transport. For this, we can look towards Copenhagen, a city which officially now has more bikes than cars on its roads. Indeed, always a city of innovators, Copenhagen implemented the first ever motorized bike-sharing system in 2013. Is this what City Bike is missing?

On one hand, Stockholm cyclist are aggressive, lawless individuals and providing them with a motor would be a murderous enterprise. It would also be counter-productive to one of the greater goals of cycling: health and fitness. Indeed, a study with beta testers in 2013 in Copenhagen showed that, given the opportunity to not cycle at all and let the motor do the work, the testers proved to be as lazy as expected. On the other hand, it could open bicycle transport to a higher number of individuals, and thus fulfill another important goal: getting rid of cars and thus, pollution. Another innovative idea is a rewards system, with free credit for leaving your bike at certain locations which usually lack bicycles (cough *Karolinska* cough). This could improve availability and reduce the need to shuttle the bikes around the city.

On to a better future
Whilst I may appear harsh on the Stockholm bicycle-sharing programme, it is only because it is the system I know best. Stockholm also happens to be an ever-changing city (have you noticed Hagastaden lately?!), which constantly builds and innovates. It also has a hilarious rivalry with Copenhagen, the current cycling royalty. There is therefore no reason for 2018 not to be the year City Bikes goes from decent to amazing. And hopefully from then on, it will be city officials and traffic offices from other countries who will fly to Stockholm for ideas and inspiration. •

Written by: Olivia Miossec


This text was previously published in: Medicor 2017 #1
Edited by: Diana Čekatauskaitė
Proofread By: Ben Libberton

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