The sudden popularity of Bicing has been impossible to miss in the past few months. Since its launch this spring, the initiative’s retro-looking, bright red bikes have seemed omnipresent, wobbling nervously down pavements and zipping confidently down cycle lanes, ridden by any one of the city’s thousands of Bicing card-holders.
Nobody expected it to be this way—least of all Barcelona’s transport agency, which planned the service to complement the city’s bus, rail and metro network. Last year a survey claimed that Barcelona had only 50,000 existing cyclists. Having announced the scheme in mid-2006, the launch was delayed by several months, meaning that the first bikes arrived on the streets at the end of March. However, a combination of warm weather, cheap prices, a hefty discount offer on membership and the tendency of privately owned bicycles to get stolen, led to a surge in membership.
The first phase of the project—now complete—involved placing 1,500 bicycles at 100 points throughout the city centre. The bikes each have an electronic tag to prevent theft and can only be used by Bicing members, who register their credit card details and pay for the service through its website. Bicycles are collected from any one of the stations, used for up to two hours (the first half hour is free, and the next costs just 30 cents), and then returned to any station.
In its early stages, Bicing has occasionally seemed to be a victim of its own success. Tales of novice Bicingers going the wrong way up busy cycle paths or riding erratically through pedestrian zones were traded among the city’s cyclists; meanwhile, regular users griped about long delays in receiving their cards, a lack of bikes in many spots and the difficulty of finding a space at a Bicing station in others. Others were cynical about how long the shiny new bikes would last in a city as notorious for bicycle theft and vandalism as Barcelona. More seriously, in mid-June, Avui reported that the owners of several bike rental businesses were taking Bicing to court, accusing the Ajuntament of going into direct competition with them.
However, a couple of months down the line, the city’s bike rental industry appears relaxed about the existence of Bicing. Scott Haynes, the American owner of Fat Tire Bike Tours, told Metropolitan that his business had not been affected by the launch of Bicing. “We’ve had no problems so far, although I’m still kind of wary. If they make it easy for tourists to use then obviously that’ll be a problem. At the moment it can even work to our advantage—it plants a seed in tourists’ minds.”
He said that he had not been involved in any court process, but had sought legal advice. “When we first heard about Bicing, a group of rental companies spoke to a lawyer in order to influence the system and process, and voice our concerns. We were trying to make a system that wasn’t for tourists, and from my understanding it would be difficult for a tourist to gain access to.”
Bicing spokesman Ramon Ferreiro declined to comment on whether there was a court case pending, but stressed that Bicing is not designed for tourists, and is difficult for tourists to access.
In fact, he said, problems have been minimal and the transport authority was very pleased and “a little surprised” with the scheme’s progress so far, but that more work is still needed. “We’re going to make some modifications—that’s not to say that there are problems: we’ve only been going for four months and it’s always necessary to tweak the system.”
Ferreiro says that there had been less incidents than anticipated. “There have been minor bumps and some people have fallen off, but there have been no incidents requiring hospitalisation. There have also been very few thefts: they stole 10 bikes, but we found three of them, and very few have been vandalised more seriously than a little graffiti. I think that the story is the other way round: that there has been so little vandalism, and that the civic spirit in Barcelona has been so strong.” Although Ferreiro says that Bicing plans to double the size of the network by the end of the year, it’s already clear that far more bikes are needed, as many are showing wear and tear from being in almost constant use; problems with brakes, gears and seats are particularly familiar to regular users.
Some cycling groups have been welcoming Bicing and its users with open arms. The Bicicleta Club de Catalunya (BACC) has even started courses for novice Bicing cyclists, pairing them up with more experienced cyclists for short courses at Arc de Triomf. “We’re aiming to provide support,” said BACC spokeswoman Diana Gonzales. “The best thing we can do is say ‘Welcome!’ The more cyclists there are, the safer it is for us: it helps build a constant presence in bike lanes. We have to teach and help them.”
Others are more cynical. Albert García, of advocacy group Coordinadora Catalana d’Usuaris de la Bicicleta (CCUB), said, “Every day cyclists are faced with more limited space on the streets, yet while they are putting so many restrictions onto cyclists they are implementing this photogenic scheme to use for propaganda. We’re not against Bicing, but they should have put the infrastructure in first, then the bicycles.” He added that the city was in desperate need of more and safer cycle paths and improved parking facilities.
The BACC agrees that conditions are still far from perfect for cyclists. “We’d like to say congratulations [to the Ajuntament] for launching Bicing, but there’s more to be done: we want a dedicated department for cyclists, to ensure that cycling laws are properly enforced, that the cycle lanes are being patrolled rather than constantly invaded by cars and scooters.” Scott Haynes also said that motor traffic is a problem for Barcelona’s cyclists. “It’s not so much a problem of inexperienced cyclists not knowing how to ride—it’s that the drivers, who aren’t the most conscientious in the first place, don’t know how to share the road.”
The Ajuntament says that Bicing is only part of an overall scheme, the Plan de la Bici, to improve conditions for cyclists. “We’re aiming to build 22 kilometres of new cycle lanes, although I don’t know where yet,” said Ramon Ferreiro. “And we’re going to renovate the lanes that already exist.”
Scattered criticisms notwithstanding, it’s rare for a municipal scheme to garner the level of praise and encouragement that Bicing has from advocacy groups: the general attitude towards the scheme is hugely positive. “So far they’ve done it right,” said Scott Haynes. “If Bicing sticks with local clients then I can only see it as a positive thing, raising awareness of the city’s desperate need for more cycle paths.”
Albert García agreed. “It’s great that they’ve made a system of public bicycles. The more, the better.”
Within two months over 25,000 city residents had signed up; when the initial discount membership phase ended at the start of July, there were over 80,000 members.
Phase One involved placing 1,500 bicycles at 100 stations. Bicing plans to double the size of the network by the end of the year to 3,000 bicycles and 200 stations.
Ninety-five percent of card holders are from Barcelona, only 0.2 percent are from outside of Catalunya.
The city is aiming to build 22 kilometres of new cycle lanes.