Review of EU free City Bike Services

Ride Reports


As many of you may know, I live and travel quite a bit throughout Europe … so its high time I give you a user review of some of the many high-tech “free” or “near-free” bicycle rental programs that can be found in many EU cities. This is especially timely given that Paris (my town) has put a highly successful system in place this July.My one-word review: a.w.e.s.o.m.e!

These systems, the way in which they make living here so pleasant, the thinking behind their implementation, the common desire to make these city centres vibrant and eminently livable places are all things that make even thinking about moving back to the States very difficult indeeed!

But on to the subject.

Many of you may have heard of “free” bike programs or “town” bike programs – indeed, some places in the States have experimented with these. Typically these have involved (as in the past in Amsterdam abd Copenhagen) providing cheap, sometimes refurbished, and oftentimes yellow-hued bikes in large quantities for all to take and use as they see fit. The thinking was that once you finished your trip, you left the bike out for the next person to use, and so-on. The reality of these systems is that most bikes ended up a. trashed, b. abandoned or c. in the bottom of the local canal or its last users garage (or all three!). These systems had a very limited success and gave the image of cycling as a somewhat marginal activity that remained the remit of those who make it a point to spend their lives imbued in an alcoholic haze.

The systems I will describe below are to these “yellow-bike” programs what the Airbus 380 is to the Wright brother canvas and piano chord flyer (and by that, I don’t mean hugely complicated and prone to cost over-runs… but I digress)

The principal of these systems is that all bikes are electronically tracked (via GPS or by docking stations) and all bikes are attributed to a registered user with a form of payment on file. The bikes themselves are purposely heavy, simple bikes that are made for robustness, not speed and are thus perfectly suited for city travel in most EU cities. The tariff systems are biased for short-term use (often less than 30 minutes) and the thinking is that these can help city inhabitants avoid using cars for the most frequent and shortewst of their trips. There are two major “families” of these programs – the approach used by J.C. Decaux in (Paris, Lyon, Bruxelles, etc….) and that used by the DBahn (the German Railway Company). I’ll describe the JC Decaux system first.


Vel’lib and other JC Dcaux systems

JC Decaux ( is a the a major outdoor advertising and urban “furnishings” (read park benches, lamp-posts, bus stops…) supplier that afew years ago had an idea to combine “free bikes” with high tech tracking and billing in order to offer cities with an innovative sustainable transportation package. The deal was that the cities would receive the equipment for free and JC Decaux would run it and in return, the cities would install the systems and provide Decaux with a negotiated amount of billboard advertising space. Thus the cities get a great addition to ytheir transport systems and the company gets access to some prime advertising real-estate throughout the city.

In Paris, the JC Decaux-supplied Vel’lib system in operation since July 15 (other cities have had their systems in place for for several years) has been a huge success. Everywhere you look you see some of the 14000 bicycles (will be 20000 bicycles by the end of the year) tooling around the city streets or at some of the 1000+ (will be 1451 by December) docking stations. The goal is to have a station every 300 metres.

You must be registered with the system to use it (either w/ a day or week pass) and at a minumum must provide a CC# that can accept a payment of 150 euros if the bike is not returned. Registration can be done at any docking station or by mail for a year pass. I have a year pass which for 29 euros gets me a magnetic swipe card that I can use at any docking unit without having to go by the central panel of the docking station. The first half hour is free, the second half hour is 1 euro, the third is 2 eusros and every half-hour afterwards is 4 euros. As you can see, the system is set up to ensure that trips are short and that there is a high turn-over — thus maximising the transportation function of the system. Want to have the bike for longer? Just dock it at any station and re-check it out .. the 30 minute timer gets set back to zero everytime you bring it in! You can check online or via your cell phone to see where the closest station is and how many bikes are currently available.

During both day and night, there are special trucks with trailers that go about redistributing bikes to stations as required (the exact routing of the trucks is determined via the real-time docking info).

Here is the link to the Paris system:


DBahn’s Call-a-Bike

The German Railway company operates another type of system in several large Germ,an cities (Berlin, Cologne, Munich, etc.). The bikes are slightly clunkier and have an on-board GPS unit that allows the control centre to track all of the bikes. You register by calling up the center and giving your cell phone # and CC#. Once registered, you can pick up any bike whose light is flashing green. The bikes can be left anywhere but they request that you leave them at intersections to make it easy for others to find them — there are also many marked stations where bikes are lined up. Once you have selected a bike, you call up the centre with your cell and enter the bike number. The computer system gives you your release code which you then type into the LCD touch pad on the back of the bike. You can now move aside the arm of the built-in locking mechanism, the light turns from green to red and the bike is now yours to use. If you want to lock it up for an errand, just re-position the arm and the bike is locked up (the light stays red indicating that the bike is not available for hire). When you are ready to go, just re-enter the release code (which you also get as a SMS text message). When you are ready to return the bike, just leave it at an intersection, call up the system and it gives you the terminating code which, once entered into the keypad, indicates to the system that you no longer have the bike. The light turns from red to green and the bike is available to be hired by someone else. Billing is monthly and the tarif system is more expensive (it does not depend on advertising for its operating revenue) but cannot surpass 15 euros a day. Link here:…0146e6…00000

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Originally posted on forums @

About the author: RoadBikeReview is an online community of cyclists who share a passion for the sport. Visitors of the site regularly purchase gear to upgrade their bikes, share inspiring photos of rides, and keep up to date with the latest industry and technology news. Which products perform best? Where to buy them? Where to ride? How to ride better? Cyclists come to for the answers.

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