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Municipal focus on public bike sharing schemes

Bike sharing - Opportunity or Risk for Municipalities?

Deezer Nextbike (Berlin’s public bike sharing scheme) and "new" providers in Berlin
Deezer Nextbike (Berlin’s public bike sharing scheme) and "new" providers in Berlin © Martina Hertel
A brief analysis of some practical examples shows that municipalities that make use of the opportunities offered by bike sharing can minimize potential risks and contribute to the development as a whole.

This article is a short analysis of experiences up to December 2018, of implications for transport policies and of municipal control options on the basis of practical examples from Germany. As the topic is subject to rapid change, results presented here may well be “overrun” by current developments.

Since the summer of 2017, a new development in public bike sharing schemes has been observed in Germany: Bike sharing cannot be overlooked. Many dock-based rental systems were installed in larger cities. Now, a number of Asian and European suppliers are entering the market with their "free-floating" fleets and put their bikes in public areas, partly by arrangement with the council or local authority, and partly without. The quality of the vehicles tends to vary and often proves unsatisfactory. Bikes come with different pricing systems and lack a municipal contract. Free-floating systems do not require docks. The pick-up and drop-off process is handled digitally using credit cards and PIN-codes.


In Germany, where - statistically speaking - almost every inhabitant owns a bicycle, rental bikes function mainly as an additional mobility option for commuters or visitors, who do not have their private bike with them (and not so much as an alternative to private property). They are particularly suitable for intermodal paths and path chains. The publication “National and International Developments - Public Bicycle Rental Systems” provides an overview of the development of public bike sharing schemes in Germany - and partly internationally - up to the year 2015.

Until spring 2017, a duel could be observed in Germany, between the market leaders “Call a bike” (operated by DB Rent/Deutsche Bahn Connect GmbH, a subsidiary of Deutsche Bahn AG) and “Nextbike”(operated by a company of the same name which was founded as a start-up in Leipzig in 2004, and is now represented worldwide). Additionally, providers from Asian and other European countries have been pushing their way onto the German market since mid-2017.

In this context, local authorities are faced with strategic and operational questions, including how they are supposed to deal with this rapid development. Does the development present itself as an opportunity to further consolidate bike sharing as a mobility option and contribute to the transformation of transportation? Or do rental bikes represent a burden because of limited public space?

Leihräder als „Kunstobjekte“ im öffentlichen Raum?
Leihräder als „Kunstobjekte“ im öffentlichen Raum? © Martina Hertel

Analysis of current experiences

Public bike sharing schemes have been a visible mobility option in the townscape of German cities for some years now. Large-scale bike sharing is also present in Beijing, a city with 21.5 million inhabitants, in which 2.3 million rental bikes from various suppliers are waiting for customers. These figures are confirmed in a study by Roland Berger (08/2018): “With 2.3 million, 1.7 million and nearly 900,000 available rental bikes each, Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen are clearly ahead of the world rankings, followed by the European capitals London (18,000), Paris (15,000) and Berlin (14,000)”. In global terms, many of the smaller suppliers have been displaced in recent months, and pictures of unused rental bikes piling up into (giant) scrap metal heaps have gained international media attention. In the summer of 2018, Mobike and Ofo largely shared the Chinese market. Financial investors from the digital and mobility industry started to invest in this huge market: MoBike recently changed hands, and UBER invested in the bike sharing start-up JUMP. Since November 2018, JUMP is available in Berlin, and they recently launched their E-Scooter section.

JUMP – das Leihrad der Firma UBER ist im November 2018 in Berlin gestartet
JUMP – das Leihrad der Firma UBER ist im November 2018 in Berlin gestartet © Alexander Hunger

The Roland Berger study quoted above estimates the development as follows: “The worldwide use of innovative mobility concepts such as bike sharing is booming. Our study shows that worldwide sales of bike sharing services will increase to around 7 to 8 billion euros by 2021.” There is much to suggest that dockless bike sharing is not just a short hype, but a harbinger of a transport market increasingly organized by platforms owned by the digital industry. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen how successful business models prove to be for bike sharing: According to some operators, bike sharing is often a low-margin business, depending on co-financing by advertising, public funds or other sources (Frankfurter Rundschau, 10/2018). As a consequence, sufficient data security is hard to ensure for dockless bike sharing, a topic that is often discussed.


The subject of data security is handled in an exemplary manner by the rental bike system of Stadtwerke Bonn, which consists of a combination of docks and a free-floating system. One of the conditions of the tender was that “all data would be secured in accordance with EU-DSGVO 2018 for users. User data and mobility habits remain save and secure in the hands of Stadtwerke Bonn; external parties do not have access”. (Stadtwerke Bonn, 11/2018)

In addition to the two previous market leaders DB Rent/Deutsche Bahn Connect GmbH and Nextbike, suppliers like Mobike, Donkey Republic, LimeBike and BYKE have also been present in Germany as of last year. Ofo withdrew from Germany in July 2018 after a three-month trial period, while the company operates in 21 other countries (as of 11/2018). The Singapore-based supplier OBike had to file for bankruptcy in Europe in the summer of 2018 and left behind a large amount of unused bicycles in public spaces; approximately 2,000 of which were sold for 69 euros each from a warehouse near Hamburg. However, OBikes proved to be subject to considerable safety deficiencies due to defective brakes (source: Authority for Health and Consumer Protection Hamburg).

OBike – Leihräder mit erheblichen Sicherheitsmängel wegen mangelhafter Bremsen
OBike – Leihräder mit erheblichen Sicherheitsmängel wegen mangelhafter Bremsen © Martina Hertel

Transport policy implications

For municipalities, the question of the legal classification of bike sharing arises. In German road traffic law, the so-called “common use” allows car parking anywhere in the public space where it is not explicitly forbidden. But local authorities do have the capacity to determine (within the framework of the road traffic law dedication) which road users use which traffic area. They may allow only certain types of traffic, such as cycling or bicycle parking. The central question in dealing with rental bike systems in Germany is whether the regulations on common use, which in principle allows bicycle parking on sidewalks, are sufficient - or if other solutions must be sought.

INFORMATION BOX: What is meant by “common use”?

Driving and parking motor vehicles in the public space is currently an unrestricted common use - with corresponding land use, loss of quality of dwelling and lingering and health risks. Alternative use of the public space including actions that revitalize the street space and improve the quality of dwelling and lingering, such as organizing events and setting up plants, tables, benches, chairs, works of art and so on, is not part of common use.

Private Autos und Car Sharing (ver)brauchen viel mehr Platz als private oder öffentliche Fahrräder
Private Autos und Car Sharing (ver)brauchen viel mehr Platz als private oder öffentliche Fahrräder © Martina Hertel

A positive effect of the new rent-a-bike boom is the potential of dockless bike sharing as a new mobility offer for commuters, visitors and passers-by, while the negative effect is clearly the space requirement/land use of parked bicycles in public spaces, in which dumped or abandoned bicycles can easily become a barrier. One solution would be that both docked and dockless systems find parking areas in the street space.

Fahrradabstellanlagen auf der Straße als Lösung (Wilhelmstr. in Berlin-Mitte)
Fahrradabstellanlagen auf der Straße als Lösung (Wilhelmstr. in Berlin-Mitte) © Martina Hertel

At present, this space requirement is difficult to enforce as opposed to stationary car traffic, because “parking motor vehicles in public spaces as unrestricted common use” is common municipal practice in Germany. A publication by Agora Verkehrswende – “Recommendations for Action for German Cities and Municipalities on the Handling of Dockless Systems” – suggests the option of “special use of public areas” as a means of regulation, which requires the permission of the responsible authority.

Control options for municipalities

International suppliers approached some German cities - some of which with their own bike sharing system, some without – in order to prepare them for their planned market entry, without this having happened so far.

The following “Best Practice Collection” shows which options for action German municipalities use and what the legal instruments of regulation may look like, such as cooperation with providers, specifications for docks and parking spaces and the handling of defective and obstructively parked vehicles.

The Bremen solution for free floating rental bikes is new legal territory. Every provider who wants to “be out on the streets” in Bremen needs a fee-based special use permit. The permit notice contains auxiliary provisions, e.g. requirements regarding the locations of the rental stations and the handling of parked and broken bikes. The annual fee (10 Euro/bike) is based on the number of bikes. Every provider wishing to offer rental bikes within a system of bike sharing in Bremen must report to the local Traffic Department.

WK Bike in Bremen – Kooperationsmodell von WESERKURIER, der Bremer Straßenbahn Aktiengesellschaft (BSAG) und die Wirtschaftsförderung Bremen GmbH (
WK Bike in Bremen – Kooperationsmodell von WESERKURIER, der Bremer Straßenbahn Aktiengesellschaft (BSAG) und die Wirtschaftsförderung Bremen GmbH ( © Martina Hertel

The City of Cologne has entrusted the KVB (Cologne’s transport company) with its own bike sharing system. In addition, prohibition zones for independent providers were defined, which are anchored in an agreement. Neither docks nor rental bikes are allowed to be set up on streets and squares that are landmarked or listed as protected such as the cathedral and the historic city centre or areas along the river Rhine. New suppliers are invited to attend an initial meeting by the local authority to be introduced to local valid regulations, and a permanent contact person of the administration monitors compliance with the prohibition zones.

The state capital of Munich is financing its own “MVG Rad” bike fleet of the municipal utilities unit through a system service provider. The bicycles, which are equipped with the design of the municipal transport system, are positioned specifically at important traffic points such as high-speed train stations. The expansion into surrounding areas started in the summer of 2018.

Due to the masses of yellow rental bikes of the company OBike which were chaotically distributed in the city in 2017, the administration introduced regulations for providers of dockless rental bike systems: No more than ten bikes may be parked in the same spot and the redistribution or removal of damaged bikes must take place within 24 hours.

In Frankfurt/Main there are no municipally ordered suppliers on the market, but Call a Bike, Nextbike and several new providers that operate on their own privately financed basis. The city regulates cooperation on a voluntary basis: they provide a leaflet with rules, and dialogue with new providers is generally sought.

Similar to Munich and Berlin, there is a 24-hour rule which, according to the leaflet, has financial consequences in the event of non-compliance: "The provider must be able to guarantee that incorrectly parked bikes or bikes that are not or no longer safe or roadworthy are redistributed or disposed of within 24 hours. If this does not happen, the bicycles will be cleared by the City of Frankfurt and costs charged to the provider." The new free-floating supplier BYKE, which had expanded into the Frankfurt region on its own initiative and economy, withdrew from the region again in summer 2018. According to its own statements, BYKE would like to prepare itself for the e-scooter market in Germany, which had previously only been allowed to start in Bamberg on a trial basis.

BYKE & nextbike – Privater Anbieter u.a. am Frankfurter Hauptbahnhof
BYKE & nextbike – Privater Anbieter u.a. am Frankfurter Hauptbahnhof © Martina Hertel

Hamburg has made it very clear to all inquiring suppliers that the city values a generally well-kept and orderly appearance and that this can only be achieved via fixed stations and return zones. However, these are subject to permission of special use. The city issues special use permits for rental bike locations on a legal basis exclusively to the contractual partner resulting from the public invitation to tender for the extension of the existing system.

Zum Wahrzeichen der Stadt avanciert: StadtRAD in der Freien und Hansestadt Hamburg (FHH)
Zum Wahrzeichen der Stadt avanciert: StadtRAD in der Freien und Hansestadt Hamburg (FHH) © Martina Hertel

This was and is the "StadtRAD Hamburg" system, which was installed in 2009 and has been continuously expanded since. At the end of June 2018, the contract was again awarded to Deutsche Bahn Connect GmbH, which will now operate and expand the StadtRAD system for a further ten years. In spring 2019, the commissioning of 20 electrically supported cargo rent bikes is planned.

Berlin, like Hamburg, also provides a public - docked - rental bike system co-financed by the state. In June 2018 there were ten companies around with approximately 14,000 bicycles on the streets. The media documented partly chaotic situations, and complaints from pedestrian traffic representatives and disabled people's organizations were filed.

Situation im Herbst 2018 in Berlin-Mitte
Situation im Herbst 2018 in Berlin-Mitte © Martina Hertel

Since the topic of bike sharing is primarily an inner-city problem in the districts of Mitte, Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg and Charlottenburg, the Berlin Senate Department for the Environment, Transport and Climate Protection has published a guideline in March 2018 with recommendations for the handling of rental bikes. The central regulations are as follows: "The supplier must ensure that incorrectly parked or broken rental bikes are redistributed or collected within 24 hours. (...) The sporadic, moderate parking of up to four rental bikes can still be regarded as “customary in traffic”. The bundled parking of rental bikes in return zones or at collection points, on the other hand, constitutes special use and is subject to permission. Where and how it is possible to park rental bikes on public roads must be checked on a case-by-case basis".

There is currently no systematic examination of compliance with the regulations. However, the subjective impression of the cityscape suggests that the requirement to park no more than four rental bikes in one spot, is usually met by the providers, at least in some districts.

Further regulations
In September 2018, the private provider DB Rent/Deutsche Bahn Connect GmbH tightened its own parking regulations nationwide for all rental bike systems belonging to the Call-a-Bike family by specifying the general terms and conditions.

Further design options and requirements may be found in the above mentioned recommendations for action by Agora Verkehrswende.

In addition to the discussion about dockless bike sharing, it is important to notice that in many German cities (mostly docked) public rental bike schemes have been successfully installed in recent years. In addition to the expansion of some systems into surrounding areas (e.g. Stuttgart and Munich), the positive development of cargobike sharing, such as “TINK” and “Donk-EE”, can be observed.

Summary and outlook

The analysis of the practical examples shows that municipalities may well govern the development of bike sharing: with subsidies, the designation of parking areas and clear rules for all providers. In addition, municipalities should develop space utilization concepts, since bike sharing is only one of many mobility offers that require public space.

In order to be able to integrate rental bike systems in cities in a swift and easy manner in the future, various procedures should be discussed and the following legal issues clarified: Can rental bike zones (“free-floating areas”) be permitted in accordance with the laws and regulations for state roads, or is a specific regulation on the basis of the German § 29 StVO (Road Traffic Act) “Excessive Road Use” a better option?

CHECKLIST: Recommendations for local authorities in dealing with providers of dockless rental bikes

  • Fathom control option and define your municipal strategy
  • Adopt and monitor clear regulations
  • Demand a personal and approachable contact person from the supplier
  • Keep up communication with suppliers

Criteria for high-quality rental bike systems from the customer's point of view

  • Smoothness, comfort and road safety of the bicycles
  • Easy handling of rent- and return processes, preferably with the possibility of renting several bikes with one customer account (for groups of friends, families etc.)
  • Luggage rack or carrier
  • Telephone or electronic customer service around the clock
  • Sufficient area-wide offer all year round
  • Transparent internet presence with sufficient information on fees, locations, general terms and conditions and data protection (before downloading an app)


[AGFS 2018]
in: Nahmobil, Heft 11 (Juni 2018), PDF-Abruf am 29.11.2018
AGFS (2018)
[Agora Verkehrswende 2018]
Abruf am 29.11.2018
Agora Verkehrswende (2018)
[ADFC 2018]
PDF-Abruf am 29.11.2018
ADFC (2018)
[Bracher et al. 2018]
Deutsches Institut für Urbanistik, PDF-Abruf am 29.11.2018
Tilman Bracher, Sebastian Bührmann, Stefanie Hanke, Martina Hertel, Thomas Weber (2018)
[UVEK 2018]
Abruf am 29.11.2018
Eidgenössisches Departement für Umwelt, Verkehr, Energie und Kommunikation UVEK/Bundesamt für Strassen ASTRA/bolz+partner ag (2018)
[ITDP 2018]
Abruf am 29.11.2018
ITDP (2018)
[Berger 2018]
Abruf am 29.11.2018
Roland Berger (2018)
Meta Infos
SPT 14
Date (Text as of…)
13. December 2018
Martina Hertel (Deutsches Institut für Urbanistik)
Handlungsfelder NRVP
Planning and developing a cycling strategy
Planning / Concepts / Strategies
Citizen participation