Sharat Ganapati

In the past few months the “bikes subject” has become a more mundane one, specifically because of the new bike-sharing companies that arrived in the city earlier this year. OBike, Flickbike and Donkey Republic are a few of the companies conducting the station-less bike sharing train wagon and the road hasn’t been that easy so far. Complaints regarding the deployment of the bikes and how they overheat the parking system, which was already saturated, became so frequent that the municipalities decided to take a closer look at these companies. Since there are no regulations on companies like this (all hail the free market!), the government decided to meet with them to better understand their operations and to decide whether they would be allowed to keep operating in the city or not.

While it is a fact that Amsterdam suffers from a parking problem, it is also a fact that this problem existed long before bike sharing companies were around. In a document which analysed the statistics of the city regarding bike use, published by the Gemeente Amsterdam (municipality) itself, it is stated that at least 3% of all bikes parked around the city is somehow idle – either broken or abandoned. Moreover, 12% of the bikes is in rideable state, but is used less than or only once a month. Another interesting fact is the percentage of bikes that is retrieved from the ones which were already picked up by the municipality: in 2014, 27,000 bikes were retrieved and an impressive number of 25 were collected from the deposit. If you project those percentages to the actual number of bikes we have in the city right now, you will see that we have around 26,000 bikes in the city that are abandoned, of which only 24 actually have owners, and more than 105,000 bikes that are parked and used merely used once a month. The mathematics is simple: if these companies deployed, say, 5,000 bikes around the city, only 3.8% of the unused bikes would have to be collected so that the bikes could be deployed without changing the parking situation in the city.

Bike sharing actually appears as one of the possible solutions for the parking problem in Amsterdam in the AMSTERDAM LONG-TERM BICYCLE PLAN 2017 – 2022, also published by the government. There, in a section called, “The new way of bicycle parking”, they set the specific goal of increasing the trips per bike ratio, which could only be done with the bike sharing system. And the avant-garde system could not only help the government tackle problems like this: amongst other improvements and changes, increasing the use of bikes in specific areas is one of the main set objectives. Why not cooperate with bike sharing companies, and ask them to distribute more bikes in these areas, or provide discounts to increase the bike use?

Besides all the technicalities, which appear to be leaning towards the contrary of the common sense, the government will take into consideration the public opinion to make their final decision. Of course, right now most of the population just wishes all these bikes were thrown away, some of whom have taken matters into their own hands: bikes were actually thrown in canals in the past few weeks, bikes were torn apart and stolen. Which came as a surprise: out of all the cities in the world, I would say Amsterdam is the least change-averse one. And even if my assumption was wrong, this behaviour would still not make sense, after all, Amsterdam is, surprise, the birthplace of the bike sharing system.

In the 1970’s, right in the turning point of biking history in the Netherlands, Luud Schimmelpennink decided to protest against the strongly car-driven city urban planning in a different way. He and a couple of friends had this idea of painting their unused bikes in white and leave them on the city centre without a lock. They made flyers explaining that, any white bike found in the city could be used freely. You could use it and park it anywhere, just like the next user, and the user after that. A sharing system that decreases the amounts of bikes per trip and, at the time the main reasons, protests against the capitalistic cars and the social norm.

The same Luud who created this system, later became a city councillor in Amsterdam. He tirelessly tried to implement his bike sharing plan without any success. It was only in 2004, when approached by JC Decaux that Luud had the opportunity to implement his plan. The result of an Amsterdammer vouching for a bike sharing system outside his city can be seen nowadays in the streets of Paris: the city has the biggest and most efficient bike sharing system in the world.

In all fairness, it’s completely understandable why there has been so much fuss about these companies. They are new, they present a new, or at least refurbished, concept which is different to most people. Not to sound like every university student, but all paradox change must come from revolution. That revolution is not Che Guevara like, but more you realizing you ‘gotta eat your vegetables’ like. It’s something that can only happen through discussions and adjustments. Stopping these companies from operating won’t have any results, and even if they come back after regulations are set, that will be 1-2 years from now. Reducing the amount of bikes in the city seems like the most viable solution so far, but let’s wait until government officials make their final decision to see if any new options came up. Until then, take advantage of the service while you can, try it out, experience and see for yourself if you like it or not.