Shared cycling booms in Russia

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July 31, 2014
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Photo of a woman using a bicycle sharing service in Moscow.
A young woman takes a bicycle from automatic bike rental station on Gogolevsky Bulvar in Moscow. © Grigoriy Sisoev, RIA Novosti

The concept of bike sharing is blossoming in Russia, and St. Petersburg is the country’s latest city to get a new face lift with the installation of its first bike rental system.

On July 3, St. Petersburg’s Gostiny Dvor saw the launch of the first automated bike-sharing system in the “Venice of the North.” The so-called Velobike network is currently composed of over 200 bikes and 28 rental points spread across the city centre, including Gostiny Dvor, Ploshchad Vosstaniya, Sennaya Polshchad and the Gorkovskaya metro station. The network may be expanded as early as this summer with the replacement of the current Czech-made bikes with Russian-made models.

The Bank of Moscow, which funded the project, did not want to disclose its amount of the investment, saying that this is a purely social endeavor, not a commercial one.

A few words about bike sharing

Almost 50 years after the first community bicycle program was started by a group of enthusiasts in Amsterdam, bike sharing has witnessed explosive global growth. Between 2011 and 2013 the number of programs all over the world has doubled to almost 550 with an estimated fleet of well over 500,000 bikes, making it the fastest growing transportation mode in history.

The world’s biggest bike-sharing system currently in place is in Wuhan, China, where 9 million people are served by more than 90,000 shared bikes. In Europe, the largest network exists in Paris where the “Vélib” system accommodates around 14,000 bicycles and 1 230 stations.

Moscow’s success story

The popularization of this phenomenon in Russia started in July 2013 when two cities, Moscow and Kazan, which were to host the Universiade that summer, launched their bike sharing systems: VeloBike and Veli’k.

The story of Moscow’s VeloBike is particularly interesting, as its launch is a result of persistent grassroots activism. Certainly, one would not think of Moscow as the most bike-friendly city in the world, given the width of its boulevards, its traffic, occasionally harsh climate and low level of biking culture. However, several years ago a small group of activists and street artists led by Anton Polsky, feeling frustrated with the limitations to cycling in the city, created a map called USE/LESS which marked possible cycling routes, rental points, parking places, dangerous junctions but also interesting landmarks and cafes. The map proved to be a huge success and, as the group’s activities were spreading, the Moscow city administration offered one of them, Alexey Mityaev the post of adviser to the head of the Moscow Department of Transport and Road Infrastructure Development. This was the start of what is becoming a real success story today.

Aided by the new people in the team, and working with their counterparts in New York, London and Copenhagen, Moscow city authorities developed its bike sharing program in a matter of months. Soon after the launch, the number of rental stations rocketed from the initial thirty and the number of bikes soon surpassed one thousand. Reactions were extremely positive and enthusiastic and in the first week, the system registered an incredible 10,000 rentals.

Now, Moscow is gradually becoming a much more bike-friendly city with plans to create additional parking places and special bike routes. An interesting fact is that the initial cycling routes in the city were placed following the suggestions of the USE/LESS map.

Making Russia bike-friendly

Back in St. Petersburg, the city is on a good track to repeat Moscow’s success. Most of its metro stations are located deep underground and are relatively far from each other, which makes using bikes to cover short distances a very appealing option. In addition, the city is very flat which makes biking easy for citizens and tourists alike. As in Moscow, there is still work to be done to create additional bike lanes and rental stations but the city officials are confident that, in the long term, VeloBike will make a sustainable and popular alternative to public transport.

So, what could be the plans for the future? Charles Butler, head of the Czech company Homeport which set-up bike schemes in both Moscow and St. Petersburg has an interesting ambition: to extend the program past the official end of the season in October and make it available throughout the winter!

What do you think could be the next Russian city to introduce bike-sharing? Do you practice biking during the winter?

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