Rent-a-bike projects are cropping up in unlikely places
Jul 15th 2010 | MEXICO CITY
Life in the slow lane
THIN air, thick smog and bad drivers make Mexico City hard going for cyclists. But a new fleet of 1,200 smart red “Ecobici” pay-as-you-go rental bikes, at 85 docking stations, marks the most ambitious recent addition to a global trend of municipally endorsed cycling. Since February 7,000 people have signed up, and between them they have taken more than 200,000 trips.
A low-tech scheme started in the French town of La Rochelle in 1974. Copenhagen launched the first big automated project in 1995. German cities, including Berlin, have tried versions paid for by mobile phone. But the most successful is the “Vélib” in Paris, with 20,000 bikes available for users with swipe-cards. In London the transport authority and Barclays Bank will launch a 6,000-bike programme on July 30th. Users can pay at one of the 400 docking stations, or use a key with a chip.
The vulnerability for most schemes is theft. Thousands of the Parisian bikes disappeared in the scheme’s early stages, turning up as far afield as Romania and Morocco. Portable locks have proved a weak point: the mandatory use of docking stations is more secure. “We were expecting people to steal them, but that hasn’t happened,” says Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico City’s mayor. Only one of the 1,200 bikes in the scheme has gone missing to date.
The paradox of urban cycling is that bad traffic is both deterrent and incentive. When demonstrations or traffic-signal failures bring Mexico’s streets to gridlock, businessmen can be seen strapping their briefcases onto Ecobicis.
Cyclists in places like London and Mexico City yearn for proper cycle lanes, of the kind commonplace in countries such as Germany. A second-best solution is the right to ride (gently) through parks and on pavements without being fined. On that score at least Mexico’s traffic police, the scourge of motorists, are charm itself.
For now, the hope is that new bike-hire schemes help raise cyclists’ numbers enough to change motorists’ behaviour—and thus erode the perception of danger that keeps people off their bikes.