June 23, 2008 Public bike systems are an environmentally friendly and practical urban transport solution, and in theory they benefit everyone in town, but sadly, most programs quickly fold when the bikes are routinely stolen or smashed by vandals. Montreal's Public Bike System plans to use clever design, RFID and a membership system to see if they can keep a public fleet of bikes on the road. We wish them the very best of luck!
You have to feel for the people that run community bicycle programs - clearly, the ability to grab a public bike from somewhere around town, ride it to your destination and leave it for somebody else to use is of great benefit not only to everyone in the town, but to the environment as well, as the bikes replace other, polluting forms of transport for a given number of journeys.
Still, despite the fact that pretty much everyone can see the benefits of such programs, they're almost always a failure because the vast majority of such bikes are stolen, vandalized, smashed or thrown into rivers - and usually, within literally hours of the proud opening of the program. Wikipedia tells of one such example in Cambridge UK, in which all 300 public bikes disappeared on the first day of the program.
Still, the idea of community bikes persists because it clearly has potential as a green mobility solution, and technology is finding ways to make the cycles themselves as "public-proof" as possible. Montreal's upcoming Public Bike System is a great example.
By attaching a small rental fee to the bike system, payable only by credit card or membership card, the Public Bike System aims to make each rider responsible for the time they spend on a bike and ensuring its safe return. All bikes are RFID-tagged, and can be picked up from one station and delived to another. When the bike is returned, the appropriate rental fee is deducted, encourging people to keep their usage times short and thus keep the bikes in circulation.
Bike stations are modular, making them easily expandable, portable and easy to deploy around town. The paystation unit can be converted to handle parking fees and the like in addition to bike management. These units are solar-powered, adding to the system's green credentials, and contain a facility for riders to report damaged or defective bikes to the program management so repairs can easily be organized.
The bikes themselves are designed specifically for the purpose; no part of the bike is removable using standard tools, no part is designed to be easily interchangeable with other bikes should the components be stolen. The bikes are ruggedly built, with all delicate componentry such as cables, derailleurs and brake systems all hidden for protection. The design is very distinctive, again to deter theft, and features active front and rear lights.
In the end there's not much the Montrel Public Bike System can do to prevent the wanton, wilful vandalism these programs have tended to incite around the world - but the system as it stands looks like a good compromise between simplicity, accessibility and accountability, and the bikes seem well-designed to deter component and overall bike theft. We wish the program all the best and hope to hear of its success and expansion. No start date for the program has yet been announced.