History of Bike Share

12 am, Sunday, May 1965
Location: Amsterdam

A strangely attired man began his weekly fussings, dancing in a cloud of his own cigarette smoke, around a bronzed, pedestaled statue, entitled Het Lieverdje (“The Little Darling”). This man, artist Robert Jasper Grootveld, had his anger sparked by this statue paid for by a tobacco company. Weeks later, building on the moral premise of Grootveld’s demonstrative waltz, a counter-culture movement was born, bringing awareness to public issues through nonviolent acts. This group came to be known as the Provos.  Earning a political seat, the group concocted the “White Plans” in attempts to make the city more livable. The “White Bike” is perhaps the most famous of these actions as it paved the way for hundreds of thousands of bikes to come.

The infamous “White Bike” would be the birth of bike share. The Provos first made the request to the city of Amsterdam to purchase 20,000 bikes annually. After their request was refused, they carried on, painting 50 bikes white and placing them around the city, free for all to use. Unbeknownst to the group at the time, led by Luud Schimmelpennink, this would be the first generation of bike share.

As with any political protest, there were penalties set forth by officials, right in line with the Provo’s mission. What better way to raise support for a cause, than have the public agree with an unjust action. It seems at the time, it was illegal to keep a bike unlocked in the city, and thus the first advance in bike share was born. After reclaiming their herd from the police impound, each bike was, as the law required, equipped with a combination lock. Not to be outdone by the authorities, each bike was marked with its respective combination, keeping the system free and open to the public.

Even with the success of the White Bike Plan, Schimmelpennink was never able to achieve his goal of having the city purchase the 20,000 bikes he originally proposed. With that said, the White Bike Plan caught traction and quickly spread across Europe under various names as commuter bicycle programs. Building on the original model, bike share technology slowly increased. The second generation saw a system that was analogous to a luggage cart at the airport. Put money in, the lock releases. Lock the bike following your ride and a small amount of money is returned. This created a small incentive to keep bikes from being stolen. It did, however, prove challenging to track the bikes.

Fast forward to 1996 and a program at Portsmouth University, entitled Bikeabout, introduced magnetic cards and technology into bike share. Bikes were still not able to be tracked, but a user could be charged extra if they did not return the bike after an allotted amount of time. It took nearly ten years, until 2005, for bike share to really take hold with the advent of “smart docks” in Lyon, France with the introduction of Velo’v. This third generation iteration is what can be found around most of the world today, with over 500 cities and 500,000 bicycles rolling the streets.

In 2008 the US finally saw their first successful program in Washington DC using this third generation technology. However, it would take until 2010 before the system we see today, Capital Bikeshare, would take shape. It’s interesting to note that the first large-scale system in the US, and idea spawned from political protest some 45 years previous, was in our nation’s capital. Capital Bikeshare would be the largest system in the US until the summer of 2013 with the introduction of CitiBike in New York City and then Divvy in Chicago.

This leads us to today. In 2014 we are looking forward to the first large-scale implementation of fourth generation bike share technology in the US, in Tampa, Florida with the Coast Bike Share system. This fourth generation system lowers implementation costs, enabling smaller cities, with less density, to take part in the rapidly expanding bike share phenomenon. This is possible as all of the technology is built directly into each bike including a computer and lock. These “smart bikes” are accessible through the computer on the back of each bike or they can be reserved up to ten minutes in advance through any internet connection, including your smartphone!

As we near 2017, just beyond the 50th anniversary of bike share, it is impressive to watch its growth, all stemming back to a humble political movement to make the city safer and the intent to improve public transport frequency by more than 40%. While the fundamental purpose hasn’t changed, the technology has advanced significantly, and it will be amazing to watch the benefits that are afforded from these new developments.