Digital Nerd

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

A P2P Network for Bikes

Via Wired:

Thousands of commuters in Lyon, France, are using pedal power instead of gas, under an ambitious new program that lets people rent bikes from public racks at low cost.

It's kind of like peer to peer for public transport.

The rent-a-bike scheme, called Vélo'v Grand Lyon, is open to anyone armed with a credit card. It costs 1 euro ($1.20) an hour, but there is no charge for the first 30 minutes. Since 90 percent of trips take less than half an hour, most subscribers pay nothing.

In just three months, the program has signed up 15,000 subscribers who take 4,000 trips a day and travel over 24,800 miles a week on 2,000 public bikes at 150 bike stations.

"It's a very novel and interesting scheme," said Brian Ó Gallachóir, senior researcher at the Sustainable Energy Research Group in University College Cork, Ireland. "Certainly, bikes are one of the most efficient forms of public transport. Once built, they cause zero emissions."

Lyon isn't the first city to try a public rent-a-bike or borrow-a-bike plan, but its program is showing more legs than most. Earlier efforts failed because they ran out of money, like the Yellow Bike project in Portland, Oregon. Or the bikes were simply stolen, as happened with Amsterdam's White Bikes.

Theft is not a problem for Vélo'v. Users must submit their credit-card information to become a subscriber. They also pay a 150 euro ($180) deposit, either by check or credit card pre-authorization. If a subscriber keeps the bike for more than 24 hours, the deposit is cashed.

Technology helps, too, and Lyon's distinctive silver and red bicycles are packed with it. Attempts to steal bikes from a rack set off an alarm, while a built-in lock secures bikes during rentals.

Motion sensors turn on a red taillight when the bike comes to a stop. A microchip exchanges information with electronic bike racks, identifying the bike, the subscriber and when it was rented and returned. Bikes even have sensors that check the brakes, lights, tire pressure and gears every time they are parked. If there's a problem, the station won't rent the bike.

A control center keeps track of the data, sending out mechanics or a shuttle to move bikes from one station to another as needed. The bikes are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, though currently weekday rush hours see the greatest demand, indicating that people are using the service to commute. On weekends, there's a 2 a.m. rush.

"Startup and development costs were high," said Nathalie Delebarre, a spokeswoman for JCDecaux, the company behind the program. "But they will be amortized over time, and as the service spreads to other cities, we can expect some economies of scale."

The service costs 1,000 euros ($1,200) per bike each year, or 2 million euros ($2.4 million) total, rising to 4 million euros ($4.9 million) by 2007 when 4,000 bikes will be installed. Decaux absorbs the entire cost for setting up and running the service, and returns any rental fees the service collects to Grand Lyon as part of its contract to use advertising space on Lyon's public bus shelters. Decaux's bus shelter contract is for 13 years, so in the midterm the system is secure.

Other cities are interested in adopting the scheme. Montpellier, Marseille, Geneva, Barcelona and even Amsterdam, the cycling capital of Europe, all sent delegations to examine it.

"This sounds like a promising project, and it will be interesting to see if it can be sustained," said John Andersen, editor of


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