Image: Bicing
Photo courtesy of Clear Channel Outdoor
Bicing, Barcelona's bike sharing program, was launched in 2007. The system has expanded to 400 stations with 6,000 bicycles.
By msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/7/2008 6:18:38 PM ET 2008-04-07T22:18:38

City commuters weary of stuffy journeys aboard buses and subways now have a better way to get to work, buy groceries and meet for a Saturday matinee. The bike-sharing programs that have transformed Europeans into two-wheeled travelers are now en route to the U.S.

Clear Channel Outdoor, an outdoor advertising company, will launch the country’s first bike-share service in Washington, D.C., in mid-May in partnership with the district’s Department of Transportation. SmartBike DC will initially offer annual subscribers access to 100 bikes at 10 stations in the city’s central business district. Other cities, including San Francisco and Chicago, are eager to follow suit.

Bike sharing is a decades-old concept: offer urbanites and tourists low-cost access to bicycles within the inner city to ease traffic congestion, curb pollution and boost physical activity. Bike sharing, unlike renting, operates on a self-serve model (no attendants) and is geared toward short-term uses. But early bike-sharing efforts were marred by vandalism, high operating costs, and progressively tighter budgets that forced cities and advocacy groups to abandon their best intentions.

New technologies, including GPS, RFID tags (radio-frequency identification) and automated payment kiosks have made systems more secure and user-friendly, but many cities still struggle to set aside funds to implement and support such services over the long term. Recently, private companies have stepped in, running bike-share services for a fee or in return for advertising rights on bus shelters and benches.

Clear Channel has agreements under both models, says Martina Schmidt, president of Clear Channel Adshel, the company’s street-furniture division. The Washington, D.C., contract allows the company to provide advertising on up to 800 bus shelters. The company’s program in Barcelona is sponsored by the city.

Public-private partnerships are common among existing bike-share programs, says Paul DeMaio, the founder of MetroBike LLC, a bike-share consultancy based in Washington, D.C.

Image: The Vélib' system
JC Decaux
Caption: In Paris, users can rent a bike from the Vélib’ system by using their credit card, bank card, or a Vélib' Bike Card.

Paris-based JCDecaux and Madrid-based Cemusa, in addition to Clear Channel Outdoor, are among the world’s leading street-furniture companies excelling in bike-share operations. All hope to bring their European experience to North America and are bidding on cities’ street furniture plans, which increasingly include a bike-share component. Clear Channel triumphed in San Francisco, but other cities, many of them yet to seek proposals, remain open.

“Bike sharing is an interesting twist on public transit and very much matching the way people want to live today: They want to have their individuality. We see that in the way we consume music and video, and this is the same thing that is happening with public transit,” says Bernard Perisot, president and co-CEO of JC Decaux North America.

JC Decaux launched its bike-share service, Cyclocity, in 2003 in Vienna, Austria, and Cordoba and Gijon, Spain. But the company’s coup came with its Paris operation, Vélib’, in 2007. Today, more than 20,000 bikes are available at over 1,400 stations, spaced 250 to 300 yards apart. “We have four times more bike-rental stations than subway stations,” says Parisot. The system is completely financed by advertising and rental charges.

Street-furniture companies are poised to excel in bike-share programs, says Mark Madden, director of business development at Cemusa. The company now runs a 350-bike program with 20 stations in Pamplona, Spain; will be launching another in Rome in mid-May with 250 bikes and 22 stations; and expects to be working in about 30 cities within a year.

Clear Channel launched its first bike-share program in Rennes,France, in 1998 and has since opened operations in Scandinavia and Spain. The program proved so popular in Barcelona that Clear Channel plans to quadruple the size of the service, expanding the system from 100 stations and 1,500 bicycles to 400 stations and 6,000 bicycles.

Unlike the bike-rental services offered by many cities, bike shares encourage short-term transit uses. The vast majority of users spend less than 30 minutes in the seat.

Fees are generally paid through an annual membership or a sliding scale based on the amount of time the bike is being used, or a combination of the two. A $40 annual subscription gives SmartBike DC users self-serve access to a bike at any station. In Paris, Vélib’ users purchase an annual subscription for 29 euros or a short-term subscription at 1 euro for a single day or 5 euros for a week. The first 30 minutes are free with either Vélib’ plan, but increase thereafter — 1 euro for the first additional half hour, 2 euros for the second additional half hour and 4 euros for each subsequent half hour. If a bike is not returned to a station within a set amount of time — usually 24 or 48 hours — a replacement fee is charged to the user’s account.

Advertising-supported bike-share programs are the prevailing model in Europe and are, thus far, the preferred model in the U.S., although there haven’t been many RFPs issued. But some bike-share experts caution cities to remember that everything comes at a cost. Ad space has a value and exchanging that space for a bike-share program can lower a city’s income, even if it doesn’t have to shoulder the cost of a bike-share program.

DeMaio, however, remains optimistic that cities can work with companies to make bike-share programs profitable for both parties. “Public transport is usually fuel intensive and needs drivers and there’s a lot of infrastructure required. But with bicycling, you already have the bike facilities, the bikes themselves are inexpensive, the driver is the customer, and there is no fuel, other than the breakfast of the customer,” he says.

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