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Dial-A-Bicycle (Rental)
Emily Gertz, 5 Jul 04

from, Oregon has long been a very bicycle-friendly town, as attested to by the photo at left: innovative bicycle storage built right into the city's light rail cars.

In 1995, some Portland commuting activists tried to bring an Amsterdam-style bicycle program to The Rose City. Volunteers for the Yellow Bike Project rescued about 1,000 junkers from the road to the landfill, tinkered them into usability, painted them French's-Mustard-yellow, and deployed them around town sans locks.

The idea was that folks would use a yellow bike to speed their errands around the city instead of driving, cutting overall motor vehicle congestion. The horrible color would incentivize leaving the bicycle behind for the next wheel-needy pedestrian.

Unfortunately, it failed.

The Yellow Bike Project was a utopian vision of urban bonhomie, and thus in theory fit perfectly into Portland, which is a primordial soup of creative ideas for improving urban life in a sustainable context, and full of folks willing to live those ideas in the most basic ways. Maybe those folks already owned bicycles. The rest put on their regional production of "The Tragedy of the Commons" and the yellow bicycles gradually vanished from the streets. Living in Eugene myself at the time, I seem to recall hearing that one turned up somewhere in the vicinity of Salem, many many miles from downtown Portland.

Still, the Yellow Bike Project spurred a number of other communities around the U.S. to look more seriously at novel ways to replace cars with bikes in city centers, and has evolved into the Create-A-Commuter program in Portland itself.

OybikeSome new models for shared bicycle transport are coming out of Europe, similar to car sharing (which has been a big success in Portland and elsewhere in the States, and seems to be a going thing in New York City), in that they factor in a money incentive to get folks to return the bike. I'd love to see them tried out here.

In England, Oybike is running a trial program in Hammersmith and Fulham, west London. The fees are modest: £10 annually to join the program, and then a rate scale weighted based on usage time, from 30p for 0-15 minutes to £8 for one to eight hours.

Most cool is how you reserve and unlock your bike: Call in with your cell phone to get back a PIN for the lock. When you're done, call in again, to get another PIN to lock up with, and to determine your charge for usage.

The Oybikes themselves are that same painful mustard yellow, with viridian green logos, huge placards on their rumps, and single-gearings, making them even less desirable as private property than Portland's 1995 models.

Another European innovation is the Smart Bike program, which rents bikes out via coin-op and "smart cards" in various municipalities in France, Norway, and the U.K., as well as Singapore.

Smart Bike is a product of the Ashdel street furniture design firm, a subsidiary of transnational communications corporation Clear Channel, which may mean that the endeavor is primarily underwritten by putting ads on the bikes.

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There's a similar bike program in Germany. If I remember correctly it's run by Deutsche Bahn, the train system.

The killer app for this concept would be for small cars in urban areas. There are already some car share ideas in some cities the States. A completely serviceable bicycle for urban commuting is well within the economic means of most people; but imagine the benefits of never having to actually purchase an automobile, while having one more or less at your fingertips if you really need to use one. Seems to me it would cut down on pollution; certainly it would decrease congestion in dense urban areas.

Posted by: John Baxter on 5 Jul 04

Here in Hoboken, NJ, we've got Hobiken as well as zipcars!

Posted by: Randolph Hoppe on 5 Jul 04

The German system is called Call-A-Bike. DB just drops bikes all over town (it's running in Berlin and Munich that I know of, but you can try and see how good your German is) and you can pick them up and drop them off anywhere. You register at the website, so they can debit your bank account (no credit cards here), then you call from your Handy (German for cell phone -- I think it should be universal), give the serial number of the bike you want to use to the operator, give your account number and bingo, it unlocks. Bikes have GPS, so it's no problem in the fall when the DB trucks drive all over town and pick them up.

Posted by: Ed Ward on 6 Jul 04

Just to note, there's also a scheme like this in Vienna, as in this article.

Posted by: Mikel Maron on 6 Jul 04

John, aren't programs like Zipcar and Flexcar exactly what you describe? The bigger issue I see in the states, where companies like these are finding viable business models for carsharing, is that there is are economic barriers to entry--a deposit of a few hundred dollars, a credit card number.

Great links, everyone--thank you.

Love "Hobiken!"

I see that the Vienna bikes are advertising vehicles as well.

Bikes with GPS on board are a pretty good idea, from the pov of getting the bikes back, although it also means that riders can be tracked... perhaps a privacy issue.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 6 Jul 04


Yes, you're right: Zipcar and Flexcar are examples. Good point about the economic barriers. It is probably easier to buy a used car with no money down and bad credit!

I forgot to mention in my earlier post that my little town of Ashland, Oregon had a "green bike" program similar to Portland's and Copenhagen's (whose "white bike" program was I think the first of its kind). It collapsed almost instantly for many of the same tragedy-of-the-commons reasons: the bikes were abused, repairs were done on a volunteer basis (which means rarely and poorly) --one kid even decided to "collect" the bikes in his garage so that only he could ride them.

Posted by: John Baxter on 6 Jul 04



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