As Toronto contemplates introducing a large-scale bike-sharing program, a key decision it will have to make is whether the municipality (or a related organization or non-profit) should run the program and have it largely self-funded, or whether to outsource the management and funding of the program to a private firm — which would undoubtedly be an outdoor advertising agency.
Apparently, if the City chooses to outsource — the most common model at the moment — the right of first refusal goes to Astral Media, which secured the city’s street furniture installation and advertising contract [clarification — I was assuming here that any outsourced program will rely on advertising for funding, but conceivably the situation could be more complicated]. On the other hand, Montreal has just unveiled a municipally-controlled self-financing bike-share system run by its parking authority, Bixi, set to launch in the spring, which could serve as an alternative municipal model. (Toronto, of course, had a small-scale community BikeShare program run by the Community Bicycle Network for several years, but it is no longer operating)
In the most recent issue of Spacing (#12), writer Paul Cohen described the largest, and probably most famous, bike-share program currently in operation, Paris’ Velib’. It has been hugely popular, inspiring new forms of racing and, apparently, flirting on bikes in that city.
In his original draft, Cohen also provided a history of bike-sharing programs, from the mythical “white bike” program in 1960s Amsterdam to Velib’, charting the gradual move from community-based programs to advertising-funded ones. We had to condense it in print because we did not have the space, but here is the full account.
Vélib’ was by no means a novel idea. While Amsterdam’s fabled white bike project is commonly held to mark the birth of urban bike sharing, this two-wheeled prehistory — as romantic as its evocation of a 1960s communitarian, anarchist utopia might seem — is alas mythological. [The program was proposed by a radical city councillor but firmly rejected by the city. In the end, his movement scattered a few white bikes around the city more as a gesture than as a viable program, and they quickly disappeared].
In fact, it was the French port La Rochelle, France’s first — and, for many decades, only — city committed to environmentally progressive planning, which pioneered such experiments with its yellow bike rental program in 1974. Despite La Rochelle’s success (its project continues to operate to this day), no other cities followed suit.
A full two decades later, Copenhagen’s free bycyklen bike-loan program, begun in 1995, served as the true European catalyst, inspiring several imitators, including Helsinki (2000) and the Danish town Arhus (2005). Aveiro in Portugal launched a free bike-loan program in 2001 and the French city of Angers opened its VéloCité system in 2004. In Switzerland, where such efforts have been initiated and operated by independent, non-profit associations rather than municipalities, bike-sharing has taken a somewhat different form. The non-profit association Genà¨ve Roule has run a free-bike program since 1997, for example, and similar initiatives exist in other cities across the Confederation. Germany’s national railway has operated the Call-a-Bike rental service since 2001, now in Berlin, Frankfurt, Munich, Cologne, Stuttgart, and Karlsruhe, and the Dutch national railway offers a similar rental service. In parallel to Deutsche Bà¤hn’s service, a small firm called Nexbike is testing bike rental initiatives in several German cities. Across the Channel, Oybike has mounted a similar initiative in London.
But the real impetus for the recent spread of bike loan programs in Europe was less public-minded environmental goodwill than a ferocious private sector scramble for advertising Euros. At a time when growing numbers of European municipalities were exploring ways to promote bicycle use, the companies which sell outdoor advertising space began to propose two-wheeled rental schemes as part of their bids for cities’ outdoor billboard concessions.
Two firms battle each other for the spoils of this lucrative European market: Clear Channel, the largest outdoor advertising corporation in the world, and its leading competitor, the French company JCDecaux (which prefers to call itself a provider of â€œurban furniture,â€ and is best known for the sleek, stylish, coin-operated, self-cleaning public toilet units it maintains on Paris’s streets). Locked in a perennial contest for municipal advertising contracts, these companies sought to sweeten their respective offers in recent years by bundling them with bike-sharing systems.
Their aggressive commercial strategies thus spawned the proliferation across the old continent of systems with cutesy names and brightly painted bicycles. Rennes launched a free bike-share system under contract with Clear Channel in 1998; and when Vienna abandoned its Copenhagen-inspired initiative after it suffered widespread vandalism in only a few weeks of operation in 2000, the city awarded JCDecaux a concession for its Citybike bike-rental program. In Norway, Clear Channel concluded contracts for rental systems with four cities in 2001 and 2002 (Trondheim, Drammen, Bergen and Oslo), JCDecaux signed with Porsgrunn in 2003, and Sandnes has run its own since 2001. Amidst this rapid profusion, Lyon’s 2005 contract with JCDecaux for its Vélo’v program was a watershed. Its fleet of 2,000 bikes made it at that time the largest in the world, and attracted unprecedented numbers of users (10 % of the city’s inhabitants are subscribed today). Lyon’s success caught city planners’ attention across Europe: the following year, JCDecaux installed the Cyclocity system in Brussels and Vél’Hello in Aix-en-Provence, Clear Channel set up Stockholm’s Citybike system, the Spanish city of Burgos put in place its own free BiciBur program, and in 2007 Orléans awarded a concession for Vélo+ to the French state railway SNCF’s subsidiary EFFIA.
The key to Vélib’s unexpected success, its unprecedented scale, also came about as something of an accident. When Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoà« decided to implement a system in Paris in the fall of 2006, he clearly had something like Lyon’s model in mind. His initial invitation for bids called for 6,000 bikes and 600 pick-up and drop-off points — had it been left at that, it would still have been the biggest in Europe, although on the same order of magnitude as Lyon’s network.
In the first round of bidding, Clear Channel beat out JCDecaux — but the French company, determined to keep a tight grip on its flagship concession on outdoor advertising in Paris, mobilized a battalion of lawyers to get the bid overturned in court. To be certain that its American rival would not beat it out a second time, JCDecaux submitted a revised offer that far surpassed what the city had imagined: 20,600 bikes and a network of 1,450 stations so dense that no point within the city would be more than 300 meters away from the nearest station. Clear Channel had clearly lost and Parisians woke up to the world’s largest bike sharing network. The new system, the unlikely fruit of intense competition for advertising market share between Clear Channel and JCDecaux rather than any ecological good intentions, now made it possible for Parisians to pick up and drop off a bicycle anytime and anywhere in Paris.