Bike Sharing: love it or hate it?

Bike sharing station in Barcelona. It looks perfet at first sight, but if you look carefully you see that “it isn’t gold”: The first bike has a broken chain!

Many people talk about “success” of Bike Sharing systems. Seeing that when I was living in Barcelona (from March to July 2012, 157 days) I used the Bike-sharing (one of the best one in world) 276 times, I would like to report my experience.

Barcellona has 3.5 million habitants, three times more than Copenaghen but in the same urban area (about 100 km^2). After living for two years in Copenaghen, when I moved to Barcellona the first impression has been that Barcelona is a cahotic and poluted city, a jungle of cars and scooters at high speed that zip through 4 lanes one-way roads.


As a newcomer, buy a bike or subscribe to the bike-sharing?

As of the conversations with my flatmates (“compañeros de piso” in Spanish, yes I did learn some Spanish!) it is very common that your bike ends up stolen. In fact, the bicycles you can see parcked in the city are always locked to something anchored at the ground with one or two roboust locks, and a third one to lock the sit to the frame. A colleague of my use to carry his bike all along the stairs in order to safeguard the bike at home. Another colleague has got his bike stolen from the street twice in less than a year.
This high risk of theft made me to abandon the idea of buy a bike, therefore I turned to the bike-sharing, that aldhough widespread over the city (around 400 stations with 20-100 bikes each, every 300-400 meters) it is not as comfortable as a “own” bike for the reasons I will explain shortly. In Barcelona, in 5 months I used the bike-sharing 276 times, for a total of 71 hours biking (according to my historic-of-use in my personal area on

Figure 1: Map of the Bike-sharing stations in Barcelona. Green: station with 5 or more bikes. Red: empty. Blue: less than five bikes. Yellow: full. Note that in a day like this, Sunday h 12.00 in summer, you might have troubles to find a bike in the city and trouble to park close by the beach.

Bike lanes in Barcelona: layout and safety

There are also some bike lanes, but the layout is often twisted in the intersections, and forces you to go up and wown to the walking area besides waste a lot of time and energies in crossings which are break into peaces, while you would like to proceed according to the most logic trajectory (as the cars does, lucky them). Sometimes the bike lane finishes in the void or with a “nice” step.
I used to feel very much in danger in Barcelona compared to biking in Copenhagen, but one of the things that discourage me the most on biking in Barcelona is breath the flue gasses of cars, scooters and trucks. After 25 minutes of biking, the smell was stuck on my hands and clothes for hours. When the bike-lane was along a straight one-way street up-hill for the cars, these runs fast, at high throttle, allowing you to breathe ar full-throated their flue gasses. Something similar when the bike lane is in the middle of the road, between two car lanes.

incidente bcl
An accident between a truck and cyclist in Barcelona, where the cyclist was killed (despite using the bike-sharing)
Piste ciclabili Barcellona e stazioni di bike sharing
Map of the bike lanes in Barcelona and bike-sharing stations

The bike-sharing: who can use it and cost

The private bikes that you can see around the city are in general quite poor qality, cause of the risk of theft. Tosubscribe to the bike-sharing of Barcelona (commercially called Bicing) one must have the DNI (a kind of spanish identification document for foreigners) and a spanish bank account (because they will bill your bike-sharing use there). The tourists therefore, not having access to the bike-sharing, use to rent the bikes from private rental companies, that for only 13€ per day gives you a good quality bike (better than the bike-sharing bicycles) and organize free tours of the city by bike that you can join, if you wish.

The yearly subscription to the “Bicing” costed me 44 € in 2012 (it was 27 € in 2007). The first half of an hour is free, than you pay 0.70 € for each subsequent half-hour. The third hour and following cost 4.3 €/hour. If the bike is not returned to a statiin within 24 hours you are charged a penalty of 230€. This is to discourage you of holding the bike with you, preventing others of using it. The money is automatically charged on your credit card. The tarif increase every year (have a look).

Bike-sharing bikes of Barcelona

The Bicing is closed between 2:00 AM and 5:00 AM in the week days (and since also the metro is closed, if you are late at a party, the only way of get back home during the week after 2 AM is by walking.

The bicycles: virtues and vices

They only have 3 gears and goes quite slow. The rear break is inside the hub while the front one is with rubber slides. Both brakes when pulling the levers on the handle bar. The seat is quite comfortable and can be set in a wide range of height (35 cm). The lever to release the seat is quite big and does not require much force. Unfortunatelly the tube of the seat is often dirty of grease, and you have to clean it with a tissue if you don’t want to dirt your trowsers. I got them dirty anyway close to the ankle, from a dirty chain cover.

It happens often (half of the times) that the bike is defective: a bended pedal, the gear does not stay in the set position, the seat moves down or rotates, the handle bar is mounted too forward or too backward, the break stays partially breaked, or it brakes abruptly when braking (old brake shoe). The gear shifter is internal in the hub, which is good compared to a more voulnerable external derailleur (as it is in Cagliari). Despite this, it was sometimes defective, and it was twitching when pressing a bit harder on the pedals, which was going down with almost no resistance. This was really annoying and undermining of my stability on the bike.

Experience of use of the bike-sharing in Barcelona

In winter season it was quite esy to take a bike from any station, typically the one closest to home, and find a space in the station closer to my workplace.

With the approaching of the good season, more and more people was using the bike-sharing and to find a bike available in the station close to home has become more and more difficult (therefore I had to WALK till the next station). Also, it became harder to find a free slot to deliver the bike in the bike station closer to the office, therefore I have to bike till the next station (or the second!) and come back by WAKING. All this extra biking and walking costs me 10 minutes on top of the 20 minutes strictly necessary. With my own bike, leaving directy from home, with more gears, I would spend 15 minutes. With the bike-saring it takes 30 minutes instead, despite the umbeliveable amount of bike sharing stations and bikes.


On Saturday and Sunday go to the beach with the bike-sharing is almost impossible. In fact, the bike stations by the beach are full, while in the city the availability is low (see Figure 1 above, and note that green might mean that there is only 1 bike left, which might be taken by somebody else in the meanwhile you walk to it). So, if you manage to get a bike in the city, after 4-5 km biking you get to the sea side and there is no space in the bike station to park. Together with you there are 3 other person with the same problem, in line waiting for somebody that takes a bike from the rack, making a free space for you.

Don’t forget that only the first 30′ are free, and after biking 4-5 km you probably used already 25′. However, when you reach a full station you are given 10′ extra free time to find space in another station to deposit the bike. It becames a nightmare as looking for parking with a car, and then you have to come back to your initial destination by walking. This migh cost you additional 1 km biking and walking, might also cost you money if you don’t manage within the 10 minutes. In this cases you just would like to have your own normal bike, lock it close to the destination, and that’s it!

On top of this inconvenients, there are all the times when I went to a party in the high part of Barcelona and I had to come back by walking because there were not bicycles left, or because after 2 AM the bike sharing system is closed. There are some van that redistribute the bikes, every day, especially in the morning, but is not sufficient. So what is the solution to this pitfails? potentiate the redistribution service and bike stations to infinite?


Your own bike is better

As of a result of my experience as a urban cyclist (2 years in Copenaghen where with my own bike about 3000 km/year simply going to university and shopping) and experience by using the bike sharing in Barcelona fro 6 months, I would conclude that the personal owned bike is better than any bike-sharing because:

  1. It is free, always, indipendently on the time of use (only the first 30′ of Bike-sharing are free, the extra time is paid, expensive). For example: on the way from work back home (20′) would have been convenient to stop by the store to do some grocery, but this would have make me exceed the free 30′, therefore I had to deliver the bike to the bike station close to home, and then afterwards come back to the store by walking. Quite stupid considering that I had just biked in front of it.
  2. It brings you directly from start to destination without extra walking needed to reach the obligatet bike-sharing station for take/delivery of the bike. However that may be many, they will certainly never be enough to be just in front of every citizen house, shop, school, office, grocery store etc etc.
  3. You are sure that the bike is available when needed and sure that you can park it. Insted, with the bike sharing you migh end up scrued because there are not anymore bikes to take, or because the destination bikesharing station is full. This is something that happened to me often, systematically, in all those moments of the day in which the flow of people is in the same direction. For example going to the beach in mid-morning or leaving the city centre when shops closes.
  4. When you go to a new place, you only check out the destination, and once there you park. Instead, with the bike sharing you also have to check where is the closest bikesharing station with free slots, and plan what you will have to do by walking (since in most of the cases the bikesharing station is not exactly in front of your destination).
  5. You certainly can come back by bike if you went by bike. Instead, with the bike sharing, when everybody leaves a certain city area, there are no bikes left. So you come back with public transport, or, more likelly by walking as it happened to me several times. Anticipating the time you head home you can manage to get a bike, but this is not a solution, somebody else will be left without later.
  6. You always ride an efficient bike, while with the bike sharing you never know what bike you get from the bikesharing station. (Half of the bikes in Barcelona had something bad or dirt around).
  7. Your ride in comfort, not in pain, because it is appropriate to the size of your body. Ride a bicycle that does not match with your physical dimentions (distance and height of the handle bar, height of the saddle and forhead distance to the pedals) not only makes your cycling harder, but might cause muscles pain and on the long run pain to back and knees.



The bike-sharing does not solve the problems of people wishing to use the bike in the daily urban trips (which are speed and safety, which are obtained with good bike lanes) but instead it creates new problems, associated to the distance of the bikesharing stations to the points-of-interest and bikes availability (or free slots) in these, necessity of a continuous serviceof maintenance, billing, redistribution of the bikes. This last two activities that consume energy and fossil fuels that would be not necessary when using normal personally owned bikes.

The bike sharing does not better at all the road safety of the cyclist, which is the main factor that discourage people on using the bike in the city. The main element that discourage people on biking is not the cost of a personal bike, but the safety on the road, and the bike sharing does not improve it at all! (instead, subtract money that could have make bike lanes!). The bicycle is an object of low cost, already with 300€ one can buy a good bike, it is not an object which purchase is prohibitive to the citizen, which should therefore resort to a shared renting (with all the complications and drawbacks that it envolves).

The bike sharing is a crazy expenses for the public administration compared to the results that it produces. Cagliari has spent 6000 € for each bike, but the bike itself is worth 250€, in facto what is expensive is all the surrounding structure of stations, billing service and maintenance (in the bikesharing of Milan this is about 1000€/year per bike). With the same amount of money spent for 100 bikes in Cagliari (but the cost is similar for all the bike-sharings in the world), 800 thousand €, it would have been possible to make 8-16 km of bike lanes, which means about 10-20% of the bike lanes that Cagliari needs to become as cycle friendly as Copenhagen.

As it has been for all the public infrastructures, the public money paid the construction of roads, telephone network and internet network. Then every citizen has bought its own car-phone-computer according to his personal needs, budget and tastes. Why should we do differently for the bicycles? Why to make a shared-renting-system paid with the citizens money, when those that uses the bike sporadically gets a better deal from the existing (private) bike rentals, while those that uses the bike often prefer to buy the bike as they like it, and have full availability of it.


Some other comments

Bike-sharing fans: how they are, what they argue, and why they are wrong

Bike-sharing supporters that I know about has never used any bike sharing, or see it was enouth to conclude that is a good idea, or they used it a coupple of times during a 1 week holiday abroad (that is then like having rent a bike from a rental, which exists in all cities with touristic vocation)

Others says that the bike-sharing is good because “it exist in many other EU countries” therefore we can’t renounce on having it. I would like to point out that the European city with the highest bicycle traffic is Copenhagen, that thanks to 360 km of urban bike lanes in a urban area of less than 10 km in diameter, has reached 40% of the daily trips by bike way before any bike-sharing was installed. (Copenhagen had 300 km of cycle lanes in 1995, when the first bike sharing was put up, and abolished in 2012)

To those that will anyway keep believing that the bike-sharing is a good idea, I would like to recommend to increase as much as possible the number of subscribers, stations and bikes, and with it the costs and the necessity to boost the service to infinite (and with it the level of fail of the system).


Bike sharing failed in other cities

Just google “failed bike sharing” and you will find a lot of articles.

This is a list of Italian bike sharing that failed pretty badly (but despite it, local administration, under advice of the bike-sharing supplier, continues to spend money in it)

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