Pedal Power: The Rise of Bike-Sharing and E-Bikes
As a (very) enthusiastic cyclist, I’m probably a little biased when it comes to my favourite way of getting around – but pedal power really is the leading the way when it comes to sustainable micro-mobility!
Today, it’s common to find public bike rental schemes in almost any city: For instance, China has about 60 bike-sharing schemes, while many of the European cycling hotbeds, such as Denmark, France, Germany, and the Netherlands, have also adopted them. But how did bicycle rental first come into existence, and what has made them so popular, particularly since the turn of the millennium?
I’ve written this article to provide some insight into the history of bike sharing schemes, reasons behind their recent increasing popularity and hopefully encourage you to consider bike sharing next time you’re travelling around a busy city!
…and here’s me (the very enthusiastic cyclist) on race day at the Urban Hill Climb in Central London! And yes, cycling really makes me that happy.
Here’s a summary of what you’ll be able to find in this blog post:
The introduction of bike sharing schemes
The public bikes phenomenon can be traced back to Amsterdam in 1965, when Dutch inventor Luud Schimmelpennink came up with a plan to alleviate the rise of pollution and cars. Schimmelpennink encouraged people to find any old bicycles of theirs and paint them white. They were then supposed to leave them anywhere in Amsterdam and tell others to use them. This was known as the “White Bicycle” movement.
The plan was a ploy from Provo, a group of Dutch anarchists, to unsettle the establishment. They felt that “the white bike symbolizes simplicity and hygiene, as opposed to the gaudiness and filth of the authoritarian car.” If anyone in Amsterdam needed transport urgently, an unlocked white bicycle became a new alternative. However, the police seized the bikes due to a law forbidding unlocked bikes to be left in the city.
It was not until the 1990s that bike sharing schemes made a significant return. France’s “La Rochelle” system came into effect in 1974, with bikes left on racks by the harbor, but this was the only real exception to the rule until then. Denmark’s “2 Gen” business, established in 1991 in the town of Farsø, is still going strong today.
“…since launching in July 2010, more than 73.5 million journeys have been made in London using hire bikes called “Boris Bikes,” named after then-mayor Boris Johnson”
John Lennon and Yoko Ono pose with a white bike in Amsterdam in 1969. Photographer: Bettmann via Getty Images. Image credit: bloomberg.com
In many cities today, bike sharing schemes are as crucial to infrastructure and public transport as any other means of getting from A to B. For example, since launching in July 2010, more than 73.5 million journeys have been made in London using hire bikes called “Boris Bikes,” named after then-mayor Boris Johnson, under whose tenure the scheme was launched. It has since gone on to be sponsored by Barclays and now Santander which explains its current name, “Santander Cycles.”
Another successful scheme is the Citi Bike program in New York City, which has been in operation since May 2013. The scheme has more than 750 stations and a daily ridership of about 50,000 people. In China, the biggest company in the bike sharing industry is Hangzhou Public Bicycle, which offers 78,000 bikes for temporary use.¹
Why have bike sharing schemes been so successful?
Perhaps because they could appeal to anyone, from cycling regulars to novices, tourists to commuters. In an overflowing goldfish bowl like London, these bikes make moving around the city far more pleasant than taking the tube, for instance, as well as providing obvious health benefits. Although initially on the receiving end of widespread skepticism, bike sharing schemes continue to be not only popular, but also profitable.
Another reason for the surge in popularity of bike sharing schemes is their ease of access. Many companies now allow people to rent bikes directly through smartphone apps. For example, JUMP Bikes, based in New York City, allows people to pick up and drop off bikes anywhere using their app and GPS. Mobike, a company based in China, allows people to activate their bikes by downloading a QR code through their app. Lime, based in California, offers a 30-minute ride for $1, as well as electric bikes and pay-per-use scooters.
The national impact of bike sharing schemes in the UK
A recent report by Collaborative Mobility UK (CoMoUK) has shed light on the positive impact of bike hire schemes on the environment, mental and physical health in the UK. The study analysed all 39 bike hire schemes across the country and found that electric bikes are becoming increasingly popular among all age groups.
The research conducted by CoMoUK revealed that bike hire schemes helped save 3.7 car miles per user per week, which is equivalent to 1kg of CO2. Over 50% of the participants in the study stated that they would have taken a car or taxi instead of renting a bike. The availability of bike hire schemes encouraged almost half of the participants to cycle again, while 6% of the participants started cycling for the first time!
“The research conducted by CoMoUK revealed that bike hire schemes helped save 3.7 car miles per user per week, which is equivalent to 1kg of CO2.”
Historical bike-sharing statistics in the UK. Image source: como.org.uk
The report also highlighted that there were 22,789 bikes available for hire in the UK last year, which facilitated an average total of 41,599 trips each day. More than 4,000 people took part in the survey, with almost half reporting that the introduction or availability of bike hire schemes had led them to return to cycling for the first time in over a year.
On top of this, 20% of the respondents stated that bike sharing was their only form of moderate to vigorous exercise during an average week!
“Over 50% of the participants in the study stated that they would have taken a car or taxi instead of renting a bike. The availability of bike hire schemes encouraged almost half of the participants to cycle again, while 6% of the participants started cycling for the first time.”
Image source: como.org.uk
Richard Dilks, Chief Executive of CoMoUK, said that shared transport options such as bike sharing, car clubs, demand-responsive transport, e-scooters, and public transport are crucial to achieving the UK’s net-zero targets. ‘Ultimately, if we are to achieve our ambitious net-zero targets, we need to address the issue of private vehicle ownership, which massively contributes to the UK’s emissions,’ he added.
In related news, a 2021 study found that cycling is up to ten times more effective than electric cars in helping the UK reach net-zero cities. This finding further emphasises the importance of promoting cycling as a means of reducing emissions and improving public health.
This report by CoMoUK provides valuable insights into the positive impact of bike hire schemes on the environment, mental and physical health in the UK. The findings suggest that promoting shared transport options such as bike sharing can not only help reduce emissions, but also encourage physical activity and improve public health.
The future of bike-sharing schemes and e-bikes
On a roll: why two wheels are the way to go.
Against the recent backdrop of an increasing number of public transport strikes, bike sharing – and especially e-bike sharing schemes – offer a practical alternative where you can be in control of your own transport.
As the number of Low Traffic Networks in London continue to increase, and with the UK government committed to reducing carbon emissions and improving air quality, the bike-sharing market continues to offer an attractive alternative to car travel. With dedicated bike lanes and quiet roads, cycling can be a faster and more enjoyable way to get around the city than other forms of transport.
What’s the evidence?
London’s Santander Cycle rental scheme has seen an incredible surge in usage over the past year, with almost 27,000 daily hires recorded in March 2022. This marks six consecutive months of recording-breaking usage, as Londoners increasingly turn to cycling as a mode of transportation. Will Norman, London’s Walking & Cycling commissioner, commented:
“I’m delighted that 750,000 rides took place in February, the highest ever number of rides in that month, echoing the wider trend of ever-increasing numbers of Londoners choosing to cycle. We know that many people took up cycling for the first time or returned to it during the pandemic, and we are determined to keep Londoners cycling and build on this further.”
The pandemic has also played a significant role in the increase in cycling in London and there has been a growing demand for cycling infrastructure in the city to support this surge. The London government has been working to develop new cycling routes and improve existing ones, making it easier for Londoners to choose cycling as their preferred mode of transport.²
What about electrically assisted travel?
The surge in cycling is not the only trend in the transportation sector in London. There has also been a significant growth in electrically assisted two-wheel travel, with new players entering the market and commuters utilizing e-bikes and e-scooters during transportation strikes. For example, Tier Mobility reported a 72% increase in e-bike and e-scooter usage during the recent Underground strikes, with usage peaks observed before 8 am (34%) and after 5 pm (98%).
Similarly, Lime has also experienced large upticks in usage during industrial action in the capital. Alan Clarke, Lime’s Senior Director of Public Policy, commented:
“The last time there was a tube strike in London, we saw trips on that day increase by more than 95% compared to the same day the previous week […] Everybody wants to see the tube functioning to its full extent but whenever there’s a strike or disruption it’s a great opportunity for people to try a new form of environmentally friendly transport.”
HumanForest, still a relatively new to London’s micromobility market, is also seeing positive signs.
“Although the rail strikes are causing significant amounts of disruption for Londoners, we also see this as an opportunity for people to look beyond their normal mobility solutions and embrace our sustainable eBikes,” said Will Jansen, the company’s Head of Operations.
With HumanForest bikes recording an impressive 150,000 trips in May, it’s safe to say that commuters are starting to hop on the micromobility bandwagon. Adding to this, 70% of those trips were made by repeat customers.³
Image source: humanforest.co.uk
Will you be pedalling into the future?
Of course, micromobility may not be the perfect fit for every commute. If you’re commuting on the main line trains, you might have a hard time finding a bike or scooter to hop on. However with the growing number of micromobility options and expanding coverage areas, it won’t be long before you can ride a Santander bike or e-scooter to every corner of the city.
The increasing number of options and expanding coverage areas suggest that micromobility could become an essential part of many London commutes. With the added benefits of environmental friendliness and reduced traffic congestion, it’s no surprise that commuters are starting to consider micromobility as a viable alternative to traditional modes of transportation.