Public Bike Systems

Automated Bike Rentals For Short Utilitarian Trips


TDM Encyclopedia

Victoria Transport Policy Institute


Updated 23 April 2018

This chapter describes Public Bike Systems (PBS), which are automated bicycle rental systems designed to provide efficient mobility for short, utilitarian urban trips.



Public Bike Systems (PBS, also called Bike Sharing and Community Bike Programs) provide convenient rental bicycles intended for short (less than 5 kilometer), utilitarian urban trips. A typical Public Bike System consists of a fleet of bicycles, a network of automated stations (also called points) where bikes are stored, and bike redistribution and maintenance programs. Bikes may be rented at one station and returned to another. Stations with automated self-serve docking systems that accommodate 5-20 bikes are located at major destinations and transportation centers, spaced about 300m apart. Placing docking stations near transportation centers allows users to combine both cycling and transit. For this reason, bike share systems are regarded as playing a role in the ‘last mile or kilometer” of a commute. Use is free or inexpensive for short periods (typically first 30 minutes). This allows urban residents and visitors to bicycle without needing to purchase, store and maintain a bike. PBS are most efficient when bikes are shared by many users each day; some systems average as many as twelve daily users per bike.


How it is Implemented

Early Public Bike Systems were largely funded through donations or donations of old bikes but in the late 1990s two global advertising competitors, JCDecaux and Clear Channel began providing PBS in exchange for advertising rights on the bikes and stations, as they previously did with other street furniture such as bus benches and shelters. Public Bike Systems are generally implemented in conjunction with  Cycling Improvements and Nonmotorized Transportation Encouragement programs in order to minimize problems (such as conflicts and accidents) and increase their effectiveness. The Toole Design Group provides a Bike Share Feasibility and Implementation Guide to assist communities contemplating bike share with answers to common questions and guidance on conducting feasibility studies. 


Travel Impacts

Successful Public Bike Systems tend to reduce automobile travel (Shaheen, et al. 2012), although impacts depend on conditions (for example, number of bikes available, local demographics, cycling conditions, and geographic conditions). A survey of bikeshare users in four major cities (Minneapolis, Montreal, Toronto and Washington DC) by Shaheen and Martin (2015) found that 25-52% reported reducing their automobile travel and 1.9-3.6% reported reducing their vehicle ownership.


Table 1            Travel Impact Summary




Reduces total traffic.


Reduces total per capita vehicle travel.

Reduces peak period traffic.


Reduces total per capita vehicle travel.

Shifts peak to off-peak periods.



Shifts automobile travel to alternative modes.


Reduces total per capita vehicle travel.

Improves access, reduces the need for travel.


Supports higher-density, mixed land use.

Increased ridesharing.



Increased public transit.


Provides a transit access option.

Increased cycling.


Provides a substantial improvement in cycling.

Increased walking.



Increased Telework.



Reduced freight traffic.



Rating from 3 (very beneficial) to –3 (very harmful). A 0 indicates no impact or mixed impacts.



Benefits And Costs

Public Bike Systems provide many benefits. They offer convenient mobility for many types of urban trips, provide healthy exercise, and by reducing automobile travel they can help reduce traffic congestion, road and parking facility costs, consumer costs, energy consumption and pollution emissions (Hamilton and Wichman 2016). Because PBSs reduce automobile traffic under congested urban conditions, they tend to provide large reductions in congestion, road and parking facility costs, accidents and pollution problems. Cities with bike share programs have fewer overall injuries as cyclists benefit from safety in numbers.


Hamilton and Wichman (2016) quantify the Washington DC Capital Bikeshare programs impacts on traffic congestion using a unique finely defined traffic dataset. They find that the availability of a bikeshare reduces traffic congestion upwards of 4% within a neighborhood with the greatest benefits in highly congested areas.


Costs include the bike station public space requirements and aesthetic impacts, and any negative impacts resulting from increased urban bicycle traffic, such as crash risk and traffic delays. There is debate concerning their overall Safety impacts; certainly there is potential for an increase in cycling crashes, particularly when programs are first introduced, but this tends to be offset by reduced risk to other road users and increased driver awareness of cyclists, and possibly more investments in cycling facilities over the long run. Barcelona posits that their bicycle sharing scheme may save 12 lives annually due to public health benefits. New York City alone logged more than 5,000,000 trips in its first 5 months of operation with remarkably few injuries and zero fatalities.

Table 2            Benefit Summary




Congestion Reduction


Reduces total automobile use.

Road & Parking Savings


Reduces total automobile ownership and use.

Consumer Savings


Reduces total transportation expenditures.

Transport Choice


Makes driving more affordable.

Road Safety


Reduces total automobile use.

Environmental Protection


Reduces total automobile use.

Efficient Land Use


Supports reduced automobile ownership.

Community Livability


Reduces total automobile use.

Rating from 3 (very beneficial) to –3 (very harmful). A 0 indicates no impact or mixed impacts.



Equity Impacts

Public Bike Systems improve mobility options for non-drivers.


Table 3            Equity Summary




Treats everybody equally.



Individuals bear the costs they impose.



Progressive with respect to income.



Benefits transportation disadvantaged.



Improves basic mobility.



Rating from 3 (very beneficial) to –3 (very harmful). A 0 indicates no impact or mixed impacts.




Public Bike Systems are particularly appropriate in large cities where there are many short trips and it is possible to have a dense network of stations, but may also be feasible in suburban areas and campuses. It can be initiated by regional or municipal governments or by businesses.


Table 4            Application Summary





Large urban region.


Federal government.


High-density, urban.


State/provincial government.


Medium-density, urban/suburban.


Regional government.




Municipal/local government.


Low-density, rural.


Business Associations/TMA.


Commercial center.


Individual business.


Residential neighborhood.




Resort/recreation area.


Neighborhood association.






Ratings range from 0 (not appropriate) to 3 (very appropriate).




Improved Travel Option



Relationships With Other TDM Strategies

Public Bike Systems can be considered a type of Cycling Improvement or Bicycle Encouragement strategy. It is supported by Nonmotorized Transport Planning, Nonmotorized Facility Management, Bicycle Parking, Bicycle/Transit Integration, Commute Trip Reduction, Road Space Reallocation and Traffic Calming.




Stakeholders include local governments, who usually set policies and regulations regarding sidewalk bicycle facilities and services, and private companies that offer the service.



Barriers To Implementation

The major barriers are the difficulties of establishing the systems, and concerns about potential problems such as increased conflicts and accidents between cyclists, pedestrians and motor vehicles. There may also be concerns about use of public property (particularly sidewalks) for bicycle stations that include advertising. NIMBYism can prove to be a substantial obstacle. For example, condo owners in Chicago protested the placement of a Divvy station near their residence and took the Chicago Department of Transportation to court over the matter. Other potential barriers include hilly terrain (in which case bikes will tend to flow downhill, forcing system operators to continually shuttle bikes back to higher stations) and helmet laws in some jurisdictions (in which case, users must supply their own helmets or helmets must be available for rent at bike stations).


Best Practices

To maximize effectiveness and benefits a Public Bike System should have the following attributes.

·         Designed to maximize convenience for short utilitarian trips, with easy-to-use docking systems widely distributed around the city.

·         Integrated with overall Cycling Improvement and Encouragement programs, suitable for new and inexperienced cyclists riding for utilitarian trips.

·         Fees structured to encourage use for short trips (free or very inexpensive for the first 20 minutes).

·         Stations and bikes are well maintained.

·         Integrated with public transit (located at public transit stations).

·         A system is needed to redistribute bikes from areas that accumulate excess bikes to those that have too few bikes.

·         Stations and bikes are attractive and well designed to fit into the urban landscape.



Wit and Humor

Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come.

-Victor Hugo



Case Studies and Examples

Many cities now have Public Bike Systems, and the number of programs has increased substantially in recent years. Worldwide there are over 700 cities operating bike sharing programs. For current information see the International Bicycle Fund’s Directory of Community Bike Program and the Bike-sharing Blog or the Bike-Sharing World Map, which keeps a running tally of active and planned programs.

Table 5 summarizes examples of these programs.


Table 5            Examples of Public Bike Programs









Clear Channel



Stationnement Montreal




466,400 484,344

652,600 687,775

1,039,500 1,649,519

# Bikes






# Residents/







# Stations







Smart card

Smart card

Smart card

Mobile Phone


Business Model

For Profit

Local Government

For Profit

Local Government

Local Government



& Outdoor Advertising

Subscriptions & Parking Revenues


& Outdoor Advertising


& General Revenues

Subscriptions & Parking Revenues

Many cities have Public Bike Programs.


Hangzhou Public Bicycle (

In an effort to reduce traffic congestion the Hangzhou Public Transport Corporation launched a bike share program on May 1, 2008. Inititally, the network consisted of 2,800 bikes with 30 fixed stations and 30 mobile stations. Today, the Hangzhou network has exploded, boasting 66,500 bikes and 2,700 stations making it the largest in the world. Notably for the first hour users can ride the Hangzhou system for free.



Vélib (

Vélib (vélo libre or vélo liberté, which means free bicycle or bicycle freedom in English) is a public bicycle rental programme in Paris, France. It was launched in 2007, based on a successful program the city of Lyon. It initially had 10,000 bicycles with 750 automated rental stations that could each accommodate 15 or more bikes. Within two years this had grown to 20,000 bicycles and 1,450 stations, about 1 station every 300 m throughout the city centre, making Vélib’ the third largest system of its kind in the world. As of July 2014, Paris’s Vélib had the greatest market penetration with 1 bike for every 93 habitants. Building upon its success, in the Summer of 2014 Vélib launched P’tit Vélib, a bike share program for children. The program is comprised of 300 bikes, in 4 different sizes for children aged 2 – 10.



Capital Bikeshare (

Capital Bikeshare is the second largest bike share program in America and is the country’s oldest. Beginning as SmartBike DC in 2008, the network now features over 300 stations and 2500 bikes. With 6 years of operation, it is possible to gauge how bike share is changing the way Washingtonians travel. The 2012 Capital Bikeshare Customer Use and Satisfaction Survey found that:



Electronic Bike Share

Electronic bike (bicycles with electric motors) share or ‘e-bike share’ is taking off in Europe. Examples include Madrid’s Bicimad and Copenhagen’s Bycyklen. The University of Tennessee-Knoxville is piloting North America’s first e-bike share cycleUshare. Electronic bikeshare programs have potential to increase cycling ridership in cities and also alleviate the problem of riders docking at stations that are at a lower topography. Riding up a hill can be challenging, so users tend to seek out docks that do not require pedaling uphill. This forces bike share programs to redistribute bikes with vehicles. E bike share can diminish the struggle of riding uphill by providing electronic pedal assistance.


System Providers

Globally, there are many public bike system providers. Some of the major network providers are: Alta, B-Cycle, Bixi, Bycyklen, Call a Bike, Clear Channel, Cyclocity, Easybike, Nextbike, OYBike, Smoove and many others.


With Free Bikes, Challenging Car Culture on Campus

Katie Zezima, New York Times, 20 October 2008 (

BIDDEFORD, Me. — When Kylie Galliani started at the University of New England in August, she was given a key to her dorm, a class schedule and something more unusual: a $480 bicycle. “I was like, ‘A free bike, no catch?’” Ms. Galliani, 17, a freshman from Fort Bragg, Calif., asked. “It’s really an ideal way to get around the campus.”


University administrators and students nationwide are increasingly feeling that way too. The University of New England and Ripon College in Wisconsin are giving free bikes to freshmen who promise to leave their cars at home. Other colleges are setting up free bike sharing or rental programs, and some universities are partnering with bike shops to offer discounts on purchases.


The goal, college and university officials said, is to ease critical shortages of parking and to change the car culture that clogs campus roadways and erodes the community feel that comes with walking or biking around campus.


“We’re seeing an explosion in bike activity,” said Julian Dautremont-Smith, associate director of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, a nonprofit association of colleges and universities. “It seems like every week we hear about a new bike sharing or bike rental program.”


While many new bike programs are starting up, some are shutting down because of problems with theft and vandalism. The program at St. Mary’s College in Maryland was suspended because bikes were being vandalized. “Ours was one that was totally based on voluntary taking care of the bike,” said Chip Jackson, a spokesman for St. Mary’s, “and I guess that was maybe a tad unwise. So the next generation of this idea will have a few more checks and balances.”


At Ripon, and the University of New England, officials say that giving students a bike of their own might encourage them to be more responsible. Ripon’s president, David C. Joyce, a competitive mountain biker, said the free bike idea came in a meeting about how to reduce cars on campus.


The college committed $50,000 to the program and plans to continue it with next year’s freshmen. Some 200 Trek mountain bikes, helmets and locks were bought, and about 180 freshmen signed up for the program. “We did it as a means of reducing the need for parking,” Dr. Joyce said, “but as we looked at it from the standpoint of fitness, health and sustainability, we realized we have the opportunity to create a change.”


The University of New England here in Biddeford had a similar problem — too many cars, not enough space and a desire to make the campus greener. So it copied the Ripon program, handing out 105 bikes in the first week of school. Because of the program, only 25 percent of freshmen brought cars with them this year, officials said, compared with 75 percent last year. “We felt the campus could devolve to asphalt parking lots, and a lot of people didn’t want that to happen,” said Michael Daley, head of the university’s environmental council and a professor of economics.


The bikes are marked with each student’s name. “I don’t have to fill it with gas, and it doesn’t hurt the environment,” said Kaitlyn Birwell, 18. “With a car, you need a parking permit, gas, and it breaks down. I’m a college student and don’t have the money for that.”


Michelle Provencal, 18, said she hopes her bike will help her avoid a dreaded side effect of being a college freshman. “Maybe instead of gaining the freshman 15 I’ll lose it,” Ms. Provencal said.


When Mercer University in Macon, Ga., asked for donations of old bikes, it received 60, which are being fixed up and painted orange and black, the university colors. Forty are available for weeklong rentals, and Mercer has organized mass rides to downtown Macon, about three miles away, to promote the program. “A lot of students haven’t ridden a bike since middle school or even younger, but when they get back on it their faces light up,” said Allan J. Rene de Cotret, director of the program. “So why not leave your car parked where you live or back home with your parents and ride your bike around campus?”


Emory University has partnered with Fuji Bikes and Bicycle South, a local bike shop, to provide 50 bikes that can be rented at no charge at six spots on campus. Students can also buy Fuji bikes at a discount and receive a free helmet, lock and lights from Emory.


Students, faculty and staff can go to a rental station, show their Emory ID and check out bikes. The program plans to add 70 more bikes and four checkout points in the next year. In addition, about 150 bikes have been sold through the partnership in the past year, said Jamie Smith, who runs the program, called Bike Emory. “We like the idea of bolstering the cycling culture here,” Mr. Smith said, “and ultimately it supports alternative transportation.”


Bikes at some campuses were treated as toys rather than transportation. Others were difficult to maintain or were not used. “The kids weren’t taking care of the bikes, leaving them wherever instead of parking them in the bike racks,” said John Wall, a spokesman for Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa., which eliminated its two-year-old bike-sharing program this year. “The other problem was that the bikes weren’t the greatest to begin with. They were donated by Wal-Mart, and others were rehabbed. They had also been out in the weather. It just didn’t work out.”


The elements are a concern at other universities as well. More than 150 students at the University at Buffalo signed up for a city bike-sharing program that has drop-off points on campus, but it suspends service from November to April. “It’s hard to maintain all the bikes during winter, and usage drops dramatically,” said Jim Simon, an associate environmental educator at Buffalo.


Here at the University of New England, officials wonder what will happen when snow starts falling, but they are looking toward bike-sharing programs in cities like Copenhagen and Montreal as proof that they can work in the cold. St. Xavier University in Chicago this month is unveiling the first computer-driven bike sharing system on a college campus.


Students can wave their ID card over a docking port. The port is attached to a rubber tube, which can be used as a lock and opened by entering an access code. Students must enter the bike’s condition before it can be unlocked. The system is used in Europe, but with credit cards.


The first 15 minutes are free, and users pay 60 cents for each additional 15 minutes, or $2.40 per hour. All 925 resident students automatically become members through their ID cards. The system was intended to be environmentally friendly, with solar panels powering the ports. A tracking system similar to G.P.S. will keep tabs on the bikes.


“You can’t throw it in Lake Michigan,” said Paul Matthews, the university’s vice president for facilities management, “because we’ll know if you throw it in Lake Michigan.”



References and Resources For More Information


Bike Sharing Blog ( provides bike sharing information and a discussion forum.


Bike-Sharing World Map ( keeps a running tally of active and planned programs and is updated frequently.


Bixi ( provides public bicycle systems in many cities. It uses specially designed, very durable and adjustable 3- and 7-speed bicycles, with electronic payment systems.


Ralph Buehler and Andrea Hamre (2014), Economic Benefits of Capital Bikeshare: A Focus on Users & Businesses, Virginia Tech, Urban Affairs and Planning, Alexandria Center (; at


Comprehensive List of Bike Share Companies by State (, by BikeMunk.


Tony Dutzik, Travis Madsen and Phineas Baxandall (2013), “A New Way to Go: The Transportation Apps and Vehicle-Sharing Tools That Are Giving More Americans the Freedom to Drive Less,” U.S. PIRG Education Fund Frontier Group (; at


Elliot Fishman, Simon Washington and Narelle Haworth (2014), “Bike Share: A Synthesis of the Literature,” Transport Reviews: A Transnational Transdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 33, No. 2, pp. 148-165, DOI: 10.1080/01441647.2013.775612.


Elliot Fishman, Simon Washington and Narelle Haworth (2015), “Bikeshare’s Impact on Active Travel: Evidence from the United States, Great Britain, and Australia,” Journal of Transport & Health, Vol. 2, Issue 2, June, pp. 135–142;


GTZ (2010), Reading List on Public Bicycle Schemes, Sustainable Urban Transport Project (; at


Timothy Hamilton and Casey Wichman (2016), Bicycle Infrastructure and Traffic Congestion: Evidence from DC’s Capital Bikeshare, Resources for the Future (; at


ITDP (2013), The Bike Share Planning Guide,” Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, (; at


Luz Lazo (2017), “Will Dockless Bike Services Boost Bike Commuting? Cities are Betting on It,” Washington Post (; at


Elliot Martin, et al. (2016), Bikesharing and Bicycle Safety, Mineta Transportation Institute (; at


Mobike (2017), How Cycling Changes Cities, Mobike ( and World Resources Institute (; at


Luc Nadal (2007), “Bike Sharing Sweeps Paris Off Its Feet,” Sustainable Transport, No. 19, Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (, Fall 2007, pp. 8-13; at


Niches (2008), New Seamless Mobility Services: Public Bicycles, the European Commission, DG Research; at


NMA (2008), World City Bike Implementation Strategies, New Mobility Agenda (


Quay Communications (2008), Public Bike System Feasibility Study, TransLink (; summary at


David Rojas-Rueda, Audrey de Nazelle, Marko Tainio and Mark J Nieuwenhuijsen (2011), The Health Risks and Benefits of Cycling in Urban Environments Compared With Car Use: Health Impact Assessment Study, BMJ, 343:d4521 (; at


Susan A. Shaheen, Elliot W. Martin, Adam P. Cohen and Rachel S. Finson (2012), Public Bikesharing in North America: Early Operator and User Understanding, Report 11-26, Mineta Transportation Institute (; at


Susan A. Shaheen, et al. (2014), Public Bikesharing in North America During a Period of Rapid Expansion: Understanding Business Models, Industry Trends and User Impacts, Mineta Transportation Institute (; at


Susan Shaheen and Elliot Martin (2015), “Unraveling the Modal Impacts of Bikesharing,” Access 47, (; at


TC (2009), Bike Sharing Guide, Transport Canada (; at


Toole Design Group (2012), Bike Sharing in The United States: State of the Practice and Guide to Implementation (; at


Wikipedia (2014), Community Bike Programs, Wikipedia (

This Encyclopedia is produced by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute to help improve understanding of Transportation Demand Management. It is an ongoing project. Please send us your comments and suggestions for improvement.




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