The Possibilities of Sharing – Cycle Hire in London – Ep 2

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(Photo Credit: Canadian Pacific London bicycle share program via photopin (license))

Bike share programs, sometimes also referred to as cycle-hire schemes, are becoming an increasingly common place part of transportation infrastructure and programming in cities around the world. In this episode we had a chance to sit down and talk with Transport for London’s (TFL) Duncan Robertson to understand what this specifically looks like with in London. Specifically we were interested in connecting the function of the scheme with the political intent of former mayor Boris Johnson, and what this might mean for the future of the program.


Bike share programs have a long history, with the most recognizable roots being tied into a number of progressive informal community schemes developed in Europe’s ‘low countries’. The most referenced origin point used is the Witte Fietsen, or White Bikes in Amsterdam in the mid 1960s. Tied into the broader Provo movement that arose during that time the white bikes were part of a number of ‘white plans’ crafted to radically re-think social issues and make the city of Amsterdam more liveable. This included healthcare, housing, childcare, and transportation plans.

Despite being the most recognized origin point, the system was short lived and extremely localized to the Dutch capital. It wouldn’t be until the 1990’s before we saw the establishment of more formal bike share systems, again originating out of a European context. Small scale systems started to emerge, with most notably programs being established in Copenhagen and the first electronic docking based system being established in Portsmouth UK in 1996.

Again a lapse in focus on bike sharing happened between this mid-nineties revival in the concept, and the end of the 2000s. Starting with the Velib program in Paris, and quickly spreading to a number of other ‘global cities’ the latest phase of bike sharing has ushered in an age of formality, expanded scale, and widespread acceptance of the idea. With the Velib system Paris introduced around 6,000 bicycles to the city, and London now has a system that has grown to over 13,000 bicycles and 800 docking stations. Indeed ‘Boris’ Bikes’, named after the former Mayor of London Boris Johnson, has become one of the largest systems built around the French Canadian Bixi system. Systems using this technology has now spread all over North America and a system in Melbourne Australia.

Certainly the systems that come to represent the idea of bike sharing today have come a long way from the initial concept of the Witte Fietsen. Enjoying widespread usage and support, these systems have spurred the creation of new government departments, private third party operations firms such as Motivate, and fed into a wider attempt to re-design our urban transportation infrastructure around the bicycle. This has had a number of positive effects, yet as we move further away from the ideas the Provo movement attempted to embed in the White Bikes, we have also created a number of issues that draw us away from the social and environmental goals they aimed to address.

Critiques of the exclusivity of the system, the wider spread concerns over gentrification and displacement in urban cores, and the concern with the increasingly revenue related nature of the model have been criticisms leveled at bike share today. There continues to be much debate, and passions run high in both directions, however the continuation in the way city officials herald the impacts of these systems will mean they are definitely not going away. The most important challenge going forward may well be oriented around further ensuring these programs fully service the interests of the whole community, and while growth is key they follow through on the early commitments of the ideas of bike sharing.

Additional links, references and resources:

Lastly we want to thank Duncan Robertson again for his time in making this episode. We hope to follow up with him on the development of the program again in the future, so if this topic caught your attention keep your eyes open for that in the new year!

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