Could Europe’s Velo-mania Come to Vancouver?

James D. Schwartz / Flickr

Over the past week I’ve visited Paris and Vienna and become enraptured by their bike sharing programs. Both cities boast cheap memberships for out-of-towners, which charge you by the half hour (Paris) and hour (Vienna) to ride. The first little while is always free encouraging members to quickly pick up bikes for short jaunts (rather than long scenic hauls). Here are a few general observations about both systems and the cycling communities that use them:

1. The bike share and it’s community (unsurprisingly) reflect the temperament of the host city. In Paris I felt myself transported back to 2000, shortly after I graduated from high school when I had no consideration of rules of the road aside from how to most quickly get from point A to B. The traffic insanity provoked by cyclists, moto-scooters, cars, trucks and pedestrian all flooding the cramped (buggy/horse and wagon designed) streets is impossible to exaggerate. Meanwhile in Germany, everyone, cyclists and bike share folks alike obeyed the little green man on the light like their life depended on it. The effective difference on traffic (and safety) is hard to over-exaggerate.

2. Hills make a big difference. During our time in Paris, we were staying in Montmartre, at the top of one of Paris’ highest points. When we tried to pick up bikes we had to go to 5 bike depots before we could find a pair of free bikes. The simple reason? The number of people going down far outranked the number of Parisian bike guys charged with hauling bikes back up the hill.

3. Don’t expect many gears. Most bikes might have 2-3 gears. No problem of flat European cities – but a very different situation if you’re talking about a hilly city.

4. The more stations the better. The more dense, the more stations. Unsurprisingly, Paris’ system was far larger and more intricate than Vienna’s. However both cities are Euro-standard dense. My feeling is in order to make these things worthwhile, you need to put them in an area where there are a lot of people (metro stations, popular parks, historical monuments) and a fair amount of short “hop” movement of those people.

5.  Celebrate the system. This is yet another layer of sustainable transportation that thanks to telecommunications, just adds to a city’s transportation and people moving infrastructure.

6. Cycling in the rain (if you don’t have the proper clothes) isn’t so romantic. Nope, we didn’t see many jolie girls in summer dresses happily peddling through puddles and a downpour. We did see business attired professionals using the bike share in Paris, but only when it was nice out. If you have a sketchy climate, consider factoring that into usage.

In Vancouver, there’s quite the discussion about whether we North Americans can transplant the bike share concept. The biggest hurdle we face right now is our helmet laws. But I think the other question we need to ask is if we have the transportation density and culture to make this addition to transit (cause in the end it needs to be about transit not just tourism) work.