I can't be the only person who thinks there is an awful lot of wishful thinking involved in the way that bike sharing schemes are reported. I think a bit of realism is needed about the capability of such schemes.
I recently heard on the BBC news that London is to get 6000 shared bikes by 2010 and that the most optimistic estimates of their use say they will each be used 10 times a day. That's 60000 cycle trips per day (and is somewhat optimistic based on the take up of other shared bike schemes. update: as it turned out, London's bikes are actually used about a quarter so often so all my estimates below are actually wildly optimistic compared with real life).
This may sound impressive, but the greater London area has around 8 million residents. In most places, people make an average of around 2.5 "trips" by all modes each day, so that's around 20 million trips per day in total. If we assume that the bike hire scheme really does reach the number of trips that its proponents say, this means it has a capacity to replace one in 400 trips. 0.3% of the total. And that's the best case if they complete the scheme.
i.e. on average these bikes will account for just 0.002 trips per person per day.
That's tiny. Barely a start, in fact. Where people really cycle they use their bikes an awful lot more than that. For example, here in Assen the population make just short of 1.2 bike trips per day (the population of 65000 make over 70000 trips, more than the total capacity of the London scheme). Up in Groningen that grows to 1.4 bike trips per day. The Dutch, who are only twice as numerous as Londoners, make more than 14 million trips per day by bike. London's estimate of 60000 trips per day may impressive, but it's not. It's more than two orders of magnitude short of what is required (2011 update: actual usage has been under a third of what was predicted, but the hype continues unchecked).
It's great to see anything which encourages people to cycle. However, this scheme can never genuinely result in a large cycle culture. It can only ever be a small part of the picture.
It seems to me that public cycle hire is being picked on by many cities largely because it's the smallest thing can be done which will make it look as if something is being done. No longer do you need to do anything complicated and expensive like re-arranging the streets to make them more suited for cycling, or risk alienating motorists as you do it. Just allow a company to set up doing bike hire and the world's press will be amazed by your achievement.
How are other schemes doing ?
It's much the same picture in other places where these schemes have been introduced, even if there are far more bikes per inhabitant than are planned for London:
Barcelona has a population of 1.6M and 6000 bikes. They claim each one is used 10 times a day, so that's enough for 1.8% of journeys.
The Paris metropolitan area has 12M people, and there are 20000 bikes. Maximum capacity of Velib is therefore 0.8% of the journeys. What's more, the system in Paris is in trouble.
To see successful policy you really can't look for inspiration to nations where virtually no-one cycles. The country to look to is the Netherlands, where there is the highest rate of cycling in the world.
The Netherlands also has a public bicycle scheme called OV-Fiets. I previously covered the amusing promotional videos for the scheme. This has a different emphasis specifically targeting people who need bikes at the ends of journeys on public transport. (i.e. Exactly the opposite emphasis as London) and it is growing in popularity very quickly. But here also OV-Fiets can only cope with a very small proportion of total journeys.
November 2009 update
Can you believe that every one of the 20000 bikes provided in the Velib scheme in Paris has had to be replaced in the first two years ?
Update July 2010
Since this post was written, Ve-Lon was renamed and implemented as the "Barclays Cycle Hire" system. It is no more ambitious than ever, and will still not provide for more than a tiny fractional increase in cycling in London. The fact remains that London already had plenty of bikes, and plenty of people who would like to cycle. The lack of decent infrastructure stood in their way and still stands in their way.
London's "Superhighways" are another example of not doing remotely enough.
Would you like to see true mass cycling for yourself ? Come on one of our Cycling Holidays or a Cycling Study Tour.