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Could Cell Phones Enable Bike-Sharing in the Developed World?

by Jay Walljasper

You can glimpse the future of clean, green transportation right now on the streets of Paris, and it might astonish you.

We generally assume that solutions to declining oil supplies and global warming will burst forth from a laboratory where engineers are masterminding the next high-tech wonders.

But think instead of a 200-year-old invention that almost everyone knows how to use. Paris along with Barcelona, Berlin, Rome, Vienna, Montreal, Washington, D.C. and dozens of other cities are creating a new, 21st Century mode of transport based on the bicycle.

The idea was born in Copenhagen but perfected in Lyon, France, where the city partnered of city with a private company to transform bicycle riding into something resembling a non-polluting train or bus system.

Rental bike stands are scattered throughout a city, and you easily get one with the swipe of a credit card. The first half hour is usually free with a modest charge for time beyond that. It marries the convenience of an auto, you can go wherever you like whenever you want, with the sustainability and convenience of transit—no pollution or worries about parking or traffic jams.

“Think of them as tiny transit vehicles you can pick up where you want, go exactly where you want, and leave them there,” writes Paris-based transportation analyst Eric Britton about the French bike sharing systems.

Tens of thousands of people who never before rode bikes for daily transportation are now using rental bikes to make short trips around cities. Commuters who once drove to work because they needed a car to make numerous stops during the day are now taking transit and using the rental bikes for these short trips. The bike sharing program began in Paris only last year, and already there are 20,000 bikes on the streets—each being used an average of 10 times a day. That means significantly less pollution, energy use and traffic.

Some see even greater potential for bike sharing in cities of the developing world cities, where many people cannot afford cars or even bicycles. Some Chinese and Indian cities are already exploring the idea, notes Aimee Gauthier, senior project manager for Africa at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.

The biggest obstacle right now, Gauthier says, is bike sharing’s dependence on credit cards. Most people in Africa, Asia and Latin America do not have credit cards, which are important in discouraging theft. If the bike is not returned the user’s credit card is charged for the loss of the bike.

But no one could have guessed a few years ago that cell phones would become so prevalent in the developing world. The same ingenuity that made this modern technology work in some of the poorest countries on earth can no doubt be applied to bike sharing.

Jay Walljasper, co-editor of and senior fellow of Project for Public Spaces, is author of the Great Neighborhood Book.

This piece originally appeared in Ode Magazine

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