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National and international developments

Public cycle hire schemes

UsedomRad cycle hire scheme (Greifswald)
UsedomRad cycle hire scheme (Greifswald) © Martina Hertel
Public cycle hire schemes are becoming more and more established and are increasingly considered part of inter- or multi-modal transport chains – in German cities as well as worldwide.


In 2014 and 2015, we have seen new development trends emerging in public cycle hire schemes. It is in particular the idea of such a scheme becoming part of an inter- or multi-modal transport chain that has prompted local authorities, transport operators and transport associations as well as other actors to look in depth at this topic.

However, public cycle hire schemes – sometimes also referred to as bicycle rental systems – are anything but a new invention, but have rather continuously evolved over decades.

Information Box: a short history of public cycle hire schemes

Amsterdam first offered public bicycles for hire free of charge in the mid-1960s. Approximately ten years later, a similar scheme was initiated in the city of Bremen. However, the scheme – which used bicycles that had been confiscated by the police and refurbished – was short-lived. The bicycles – which had been intended for use by the general public – were immobilized with private locks or disappeared in cellars and backyards. Starting in the mid-1990s, simple schemes that allow the hire and return of bicycles at specific stations with a deposit coin were introduced, in particular in the Scandinavian countries.

Since the beginning of this century, an enhanced type of scheme has been set up in many places: automated public cycle hire schemes. As their users generally needed to register first, they were considered “secure”. Examples are “Vélo´v” in Lyon (2005), “Vélib” in Paris (2007) and “Barclays Cycle Hire” in London (2010). In Germany, the “Call a Bike” cycle hire scheme was introduced in 2001 in Munich and later taken over by Deutsche Bahn.

Copenhagen, Barcelona and Stockholm are further cities in Europe where public cycle hire schemes have been enjoying great success for many years now. Other cities – including in Germany – have already followed these examples or are considering introducing a public cycle hire scheme and making it part of their inter- or multi-modal transport chain. Public hire cycles in cities are used by inward-bound and outward-bound commuters as well as by tourists (provided that they register) who have not brought their own bicycle. In tourist regions, in contrast, bicycles are traditionally hired from cycle dealers or hotels [Bracher 2015].

Fahrradverleihsystem „Barclays“ in London
© Martina Hertel


Development and structure of the different public cycle hire schemes

To date, the development of public cycle hire schemes has seen four generations: they are shown in table 1. The latest generation is integrated into public transport systems by means of special fares and hire stations at stops.

Table 1: Types, features and examples of public cycle hire schemes of the first, second, third and fourth generations




Traditional cycle hire
Staffed cycle hire

Fixed opening hours
Price depends on hire period
Contract of use per hire
No one-way trips

Tourist cycle hire schemes

First generation
Municipal bicycles

“Free”/“public” bicycles
Use without lock and registration of users

Witte fiets (Amsterdam, 1965)
Aktion kommunales Fahrrad (Bremen, 1979)
Vélos jaunes (La Rochelle, 1974)

Second generation
Deposit bicycles

Deposit system (similar to that of shopping trolleys)
Time of use not limited

Bycyklen (Copenhagen, since 1995),
Oderbruch (Wriezen, around 2000)

Third generation
Station-based and free-floating schemes

Automated hire (user identification, cashless payment, electronic key)
Special bicycles
Often free of charge during the first thirty minutes
Generally funded from advertising

Rennes (free of charge for two hours, 1998)
Call-a-Bike (Munich et al., from 2000)
Sandnes (Norway)
Vélo’v Lyon (from 2005)
Vélib Paris (from 2008)
Barcelona (Bicing, from 2007)
Bixi in Montréal (from 2009)
London (Barclay’s Cycle Hire or Santander Cycles from 2010)
Guangzhou (China, from 2010)

Fourth generation
Integration of cycle hire schemes into local public transport structures
Station-based and free-floating systems

Smart bikes

Automated hire (user identification, cashless payment, electronic key)
Special bicycles
Integrated into public transport systems by means of special fares and hire stations at stops

On-board computer and internet

Cycle hire scheme integrated into local public transport
Bordeaux, V³/Vcub (from 2010)
Mainz, MVGmeinRad (from 2012)
Trial schemes in Germany (2009-2013)

GoBike Copenhagen (from 2014, successor to Bycyklen)

Source: in-house table

Public cycle hire schemes can be divided into station-based schemes where bicycles are checked out and back in at stations (e.g. Call a Bike in Berlin) and free-floating schemes where bicycles can be returned anywhere within a defined area and no stations are needed (e.g. Fächerrad Karlsruhe). Unlike with car sharing, the trend regarding hire cycles is clearly moving towards station-based systems.

Innovative public cycle hire schemes in Germany

Because public cycle hire schemes existed in many German cities but were not or still are not linked to other means of transport, the Federal Ministry of Transport decided to promote the improvement of cycle hire schemes between 2009 and 2012 by integrating hire schemes and local public transport services. In the “Innovative Public Cycle Hire Schemes” model projects in the cities of Kassel, Mainz and Nuremberg, in the Ruhr region and on the island of Usedom as well as the neighbouring mainland, the bicycle (as an individual means of transport) has been integrated into the traditional range of public transport services (as a collective means of transport) in terms of fares, physical structures and organisation.

Five systems with considerably different approaches have been created:

  • Norisbike in Nuremberg Since May 2011, the station-based NorisBike cycle hire scheme has complemented local public transport services in the City of Nuremberg – in the city centre, two business parks on the urban fringe and Dutzendteich people’s park. Bicycles are provided by nextbike.
  • MVGmeinRad in Mainz: In Mainz, the public cycle hire scheme has been integrated into the publicly owned transport undertaking MVG as a separate unit. This is only possible because the undertaking considers itself to be a mobility service provider, which represents a special feature.
  • Konrad in Kassel: The Konrad system is funded by the city of Kassel, operated by DB Rent and supported by the local public transport operator. Like MVGmeinRad in Mainz, Kassel also uses the Paper Bicycle manufactured by Simpel but, in contrast to Mainz, an electronics box is provided by DB Rent and an own design is used.
  • Metropolradruhr in the Ruhr region: The metropolradruhr cycle hire scheme is funded by the Ruhr regional association together with the Rhine-Ruhr integrated transport authority and ten cities in the region. In accordance with the polycentric structure of the conurbation, the system, on the one hand, extends to rural regions, but is, on the other hand, also characterized by concentrations in the individual city centres.
  • UsedomRad on the isle of Usedom and the neighbouring mainland: Unlike traditional cycle hire schemes, the system also allows users to make one-way journeys (but is mostly used for roundtrips). It is to relieve pressure on the Usedomer Bäderbahn (UBB) and increase the demand for bus services, in particular in the hinterland region of the Achterland lagoon. Some stations can also be found on the Polish side of the island. Ten local providers of cycle hire services have joined forces in the Usedomer Fahrradgesellschaft mbH, which has a majority stake in the UsedomRad GmbH operating company.

Checklist for a successful public cycle hire scheme:

  • Comfortable and easy to operate bicycles for everyday use (including some pedelecs);
  • Station-based and free-floating hire, 24 hours a day;
  • Integration into public transport fare schemes, for example concessions in the form of an annual season ticket;
  • Attractive and easy to understand prices (in the style of single tickets in public transport) to use bikes especially for short trips;
  • Gear area of availability to the daily routes of the target group (commuters, students, tourists etc.);
  • Geographical proximity to public transport stops;
  • High density of hire stations (if station-based);
  • Redistribution (no empty and no full stations) and options for the positioning of parked bikes;
  • Simple admission to the system from the point of view of users;
  • Simple payment and season ticket schemes;
  • Lockable bikes that can also be parked while still on hire;
  • Space for luggage or purchases in the form of baskets or other storage options;
  • Uniform design of bikes and stations for recognition on the streets;
  • Multimedia information services and marketing measures to explain and promote the hire scheme.

Users of the public cycle hire schemes of the model project

From the evaluation of the model project, we have seen that users of public cycle hire schemes in cities are more often male than female, while there is nearly no difference between the sexes to be found when it comes to tourist schemes. Typical users in urban areas are between 20 and 49 years old, in tourist contexts average ages can be higher. The duration of use is highly dependent on the pricing structure. If, for example, the first 30 minutes are free of charge, bicycles are often not used longer than that. [Bracher, Hertel 2014]

Guidance on planning a hire scheme

As a result of the model projects, but also many other cycle hire schemes that are being operated, there is a comprehensive amount of practical experience and evaluation results. From this, guidance on planning a cycle hire scheme can be derived:

Bike features

The bicycles are the most important feature of the cycle hire scheme. They need to be robust and low-maintenance but still easy to ride. In order to meet the operational requirements, the bikes should (at least) be equipped with the following:

  • Solid frame: Steel frames may suffer from rust spots due to weather conditions. Therefore, the expenditure on maintenance and replacement may be higher. Aluminium frames, in contrast, are less durable and there is a higher risk of breakage. Moreover, for free bikes to be more visible and the public cycle hire scheme as a whole to be(come) known to potential users, hire cycles should also be eye-catching (recognition factor).
  • Fat tyres
  • Protected chains
  • Low-maintenance breaks
  • Good and safe carrying options (in the form of bike baskets or similar): As bike baskets are unfortunately often misused to dispose of waste, these elements should be designed in an intelligent manner such that the undesirable carrying of another person on the hire cycle is also prevented.

Network design

The selection of sites for a cycle hire scheme and the recommended density of stations should be based on the density of local public transport and local passenger rail service stops. The density of stations of successful schemes in other countries with a relatively high number of users (e.g. Vélib Paris or Bicing Barcelona) is higher than in many German model projects (10-13 stations/km² compared to initially only 1.6 stations/km² in the model projects). In the core areas of Mainz and Dortmund, where the networks of stations have become denser in the meantime, there is now a density of stations of more than 10 stations/km².


With station-based systems, redistribution is simpler and cheaper than with free-floating systems. The bikes are handed back at fixed points in the operating area where they are easy to find for the next customer. Stations should be dimensioned so as to accommodate large numbers of bikes (based on the expected demand) and not run dry all the time. In many cases, station-based systems also mean that much effort is involved in distributing and transporting bikes from overloaded to empty stations, and this makes up for the bulk of operating costs (in particular in cities with diverse topography such as Barcelona).


Pricing is a major factor in terms of the attractiveness of cycle hire schemes. However, it is highly dependent on the (financial) capabilities and, in particular, on the priorities of the respective municipality. Bonus credits, concessionary rates or free use during the first thirty minutes for holders of a public transport season ticket can help increase the interlinking with classic public transport in a positive manner.


Generally, attractive public transport – with trains and buses or bicycles – cannot be provided on a commercial basis. The following points should be taken into account in terms of funding:

  • Stable and regular revenues required: Redistribution costs and depreciations on or replacement cost of technical equipment of a public cycle hire scheme require stable and regular revenues.
  • Integration into local public transport fare structures: In university cities, for example, the possibility of ensuring basic funding from semester tickets or student fees by means of agreements with the student body has proved successful. Public transport authorities could also contribute to the operation of public cycle hire schemes with an appropriate use of funds. In addition to the semester ticket, it is conceivable, for example, to participate in the distribution of income for season tickets that enable both local public transport and public cycle hire schemes to be used.
  • Sponsoring: Advertising revenue has become an established instrument in terms of funding, either by means of direct advertising on the hire cycles or by means of sponsoring of the cycle hire scheme. As is the case with local public transport, public cycle hire schemes in cities can, according to current knowledge, not be operated without co-funding or advertising revenue.
  • Integration into public transport schemes: The issue of integrating hire schemes into public transport structures, which has already been mentioned under Pricing and Funding, is a major component. In addition to a common corporate design (stations in London and Mainz, for example), it is extremely important that stations can be easily identified in the different network and line plans and that cycle hire schemes are included in the different information materials on urban transport so that they are perceived as part of multi- or intermodal transport schemes.

Overview of cycle hire schemes in Germany

The cycle hire market in Germany is currently dominated by two providers of cycle hire schemes. Under the “Call-a-bike” brand, Deutsche Bahn or DB Rent have been operating a cycle hire scheme since 2001. For the bikes, an aluminium frame that is manufactured by BikeTec in Switzerland is used, and the bikes are fitted with a small electronics box that regulates the lock. There are several versions of the hire system, both station-based as well as free-floating. Call-a-Bike is currently available in more than 41 German cities (as of April 2015).

According to their own figures of April 2015, the Leipzig-based company nextbike, which was founded in 2004, offers a total of 20,000 bikes for hire in 15 countries on four continents (including 33 German cities as well as cities in Austria, Poland, Latvia, Turkey, New Zealand, Switzerland and Cyprus). In addition, the company operates as a system service provider for third parties. Depending on the city, nextbike offers both station-based as well as free-floating hire schemes. A characteristic feature of the system is advertising that is directly affixed to the bikes to cover some of the costs.

Some of the different public cycle hire schemes that can be found in Germany are presented in the following:


In terms of the number of cycles hired, the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg has the most successful public cycle hire scheme in Germany. “StadtRAD Hamburg” is funded completely by the City of Hamburg. The fact that the public cycle hire scheme has its own "identity" leads to high levels of acceptance among the local population and considerably contributes to the positive image of Hamburg.


The city of Offenburg has not only planned its bicycle rental system for third parties, but the bikes can also be used for business purposes. The hire cycles also play a significant role in the establishment of a network of mobility stations in Offenburg and the surrounding area where – under the slogan “simply mobile” – car sharing is also integrated. At a later stage, pedelecs are also to be offered which, in particular as a result of pedalling being assisted by a small electric motor, open up new opportunities for users in many ways (greater distances, higher maximum speeds).

Cologne and Munich

In the cities of Cologne and Munich, new cycle hire schemes that were commissioned by the public transport companies Kölner Verkehrsbetriebe (KVB) and Münchner Verkehrsgesellschaft (MVG) were introduced in 2015 and are being progressively expanded. In Heidelberg, Mannheim, Ludwigshafen and Speyer, too, new schemes have been introduced since March 2015 with organisational support provided by the Rhein-Neckar integrated transport authority (VRN).


The North Rhine-Westphalian city of Aachen is taking a different approach: Here, the initiative with the name of “velocity” has set an ambitious goal of making available 1,000 pedelecs at 100 hire stations in the entire area of the city. The test phase of the ambitious project, which is the result of an initiative of students and is being supported by RWTH Aachen University and by the City of Aachen, started in November 2014. To test the technology extensively, four test stations have initially been set up.


The council of the city of Regensburg decided to establish a cycle hire scheme based on pedelecs at the end of June 2015.


The public cycle hire scheme of the City of Emsdetten came second in the “Service” category of the 2015 German Cycling Prize. Following an initiative by
the Emsdetten Kolpingfamilie (a Catholic social association), 150 orange bicycles are available for use by 36,000 inhabitants. The offer has been well received by the people, and, since the project started in 2009, bicycle theft figures have almost halved.

An international perspective

© Difu

In recent years, the trend towards establishing public cycle hire schemes cannot be overlooked, especially not in many large international cities: With 6,500 bicycles, Ecobici in Mexico City, which was launched in 2010, is the largest cycle hire system in America; the largest in the world can be found in Wuhan in China with approx. 90,000 bicycles at 1,318 stations. Before the cycle hire schemes were introduced, there was practically no utility cycling in Paris, London as well as many American cities. In Paris, for example, the 20,600 bicycles of Vélib that are available at 1,451 stations have not only changed the cityscape but have also made a contribution to private bikes being used on the streets of the French capital. [Metrobike 2015]

The aforementioned trend is shown in the graph on the growth of bike share worldwide. While there were only 100,000 hire cycles worldwide in 2007, their number had increased more than sevenfold by 2013.

According to the website The Bike-sharing Blog, at the beginning of April 2015, 851 public cycle hire schemes with more than one million hire cycles were to be found worldwide and 234 public cycle hire schemes were at the planning stage. By now, most bikes use proven technology, many features of the hire scheme have been automated, there is central registration of users, payment is cashless and access is provided via an electronic key or mobile phone.


Name of the scheme

Number of stations

Number of hire cycles

Rides per bike per day


Wuhan Public Bicycle





Hangzhou Public Bicycle

(as at: 07/2015)

(as at: 07/2015)

(as at: 07/2015)

Mexiko City


(as at: 03/2015)

(as at 03/2015)

(as at: 03/2015)

New York City

Citi Bike NYC

(as at: 05/2013)

(as at: 05/2013)



Santander Cycles

(as at: 04/2015)

(as at: 04/2015)









(as at: 10/2013)

(as at: 10/2013)

(as at: 10/2013)

Randstad (Netherlands)



approx. 6,000


Sources: Calculation based on figures from different sources such as and as well as the websites of the different cycle hire schemes.

Fahrradverleihsystem in Xian (China)
© Sabine Schulten

In recent years, the European focus has initially been on the major urban areas of the Netherlands, Italy and Spain. The best-known example from Spain is the Bicing system. It includes 6,000 bicycles and 420 stations and is reserved exclusively for the inhabitants of Barcelona, where it was introduced in 2007. This special characteristic is due to protests by tourist cycle hire companies, who were afraid of losing their business with cycling tourists in Barcelona. The study entitled “The health risks and benefits of cycling in urban environments compared with car use: health impact assessment study” that was published in 2009 by the “Center for Research in Environmental Epidemiology” found that as a result of the introduction of hire cycles in Barcelona, each year on average twelve fewer people die. This is due to the health benefits of cycling: for example, there is a lower risk of cardiovascular diseases as well as high blood pressure and body weight can be reduced. The resulting effects are greater than the risk of suffering harm from unsafe traffic and polluted air.

The new generation of cycle hire schemes is characterized by cooperation with and integration into public transport structures and schemes. In Bordeaux, for example, after a change of the operator of the local system and a comprehensive reform of the bus network, the VCUB (Vélo Communauté Urbaine de Bordeaux) cycle hire scheme forms the third pillar of local public transport alongside trams and buses. On behalf of the regional CUB association, the bikes not only make the city of Bordeaux more accessible, but they are also links to the railway and tram stations of neighbouring communities. Moreover, the public cycles are integrated into the passenger information services: Displays at the train stations also show how many bikes are currently available at the nearest stop.

In the Randstad region (with cities such as Amsterdam, Utrecht, Rotterdam, The Hague, Leiden and Haarlem), blue and yellow ov-fiets are available for hire from more than 250 train stations. The bikes are available at all large and medium-sized stations, many small train stations, but also in some industrial estates as well as at metro and bus stops and a number of P+R stations. The system of the Dutch railways is primarily designed for the last part of the (rail) journey; the main target groups are commuters and business travellers. The service complements the guarded bike parking at the departure station. At the same time, bicycle transport on trains is being handled more restrictively, mainly due to the rapidly growing number of passengers in the rail network during rush hours.

Subscribers find the ov-fiets in cycle lockers or automated multi-storey cycle parks which can be accessed using a smart card. With the help of these smart cards, the hire process is done within a few seconds and the amount due is automatically debited from the user's account.

The city of Copenhagen has also chosen to integrate the cycle hire scheme into local public transport structures. The bycyklen scheme is part of the 2011-2025 cycling strategy for the city that was adopted in 2011. Together with buses, trains and underground, the public cycle hire scheme is to become an integral part of public transport in the metropolitan region. By combining the ecomobility means of transport, the competitive advantage over private motorized transport is to be secured.


Cycle hire schemes increase the quality of an integrated system of public transport comprised of public cycle hire schemes, public transport and car sharing and, in the long run, make a contribution to the shift towards lasting sustainable mobility. Public cycle hire schemes can be a part of the intermodal chain of mobility and, for this reason, basic funding should be provided for this purpose, similar to local public transport. However, public cycle hire schemes cannot compete with traditional public transport and the number of users is just a fraction of the demand for public transport. What they can do, however, is to meaningfully complement buses and trains, in particular on the “last mile”.

Successful public cycle hire schemes can make a major contribution to raising a city’s profile and to promoting cycling in general. It is therefore strongly recommended that an eye be kept not only on the direct mobility-related costs and effects, but also on the indirect positive effects when deciding on the design and operation of such systems.

In the near future, many cities or municipalities will consider or actually prepare tendering processes for a public cycle hire scheme. There is as yet no uniform award practice, and a practical guideline for local authorities in Germany would be desirable.

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[Böhm, Grünewald, Hertel, Smolders, Zappe 2015]
Böhm, Olaf; Grünewald, David; Hertel, Martina; Smolders, Tina; Zappe, Mannheim
[Bracher 2015]
Bracher, T. ; Dziekan, K. ; Gies, J. ; Holzapfel, H. ; Huber, F. ; Kiepe, F. ; Reutter, U. ; Saary, K. ; Schwedes, O. (Hrsg.)
[Bracher, Hertel 2014]
Koska, Thorsten; Friedrich, Markus; Rabenstein, Benjamin; Bracher, Tilman; Hertel, Martina
[Bracher, Hertel 2012]
Bracher, Tilman; Hertel, Martina; Koska, Thorsten; Beuermann, Christiane; Reutter, Oscar
[ITDP 2010]
Institute for Transportation Development Policy
[Metrobike 2015]
Abruf am 10.05.2015
Abruf am 07.07.2015