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Friday, April 25, 2014

Here's What I Learned About Bike Sharing While in Europe

Posted By on Fri, Apr 25, 2014 at 2:53 PM


Of course, it would take the Europeans to actually take the word "sharing" seriously when it comes to bike sharing. I'm on location in Berlin where an organization called Bike Surf has taken upon itself the Sisyphean task of providing free bikes to anyone who wants to borrow one. It's not perfect, but it certainly has a lot more to do with sharing than Airbnb and Spinlister, and the rest of the faux-sharing economy.

The funny thing about the "sharing economy" is that it seems like it's missed the point. It might as well be called the rental economy, but that's not really nearly as disruptive sounding. I've tried public bike share systems, I've tried SpinLister, and by far the one that seems most like sharing is Bike Surf.

The Paris bike share Velib is a portmanteau of free and bike, but it is most certainly not free.
  • The Paris bike share Velib is a portmanteau of free and bike, but it is most certainly not free.

Bike Surf was an idea hatched in Berlin by Graham Pope two years ago as a way for people to borrow bikes for free. For a while it was based on the Couch Surfing website -- you had to have an account there to borrow a bike. Now Bike Surf has its own website, and with a simple photo of your passport or driver's license, or other ID you can request a bike.

I tried it, and after a little trouble, where most of the bikes were already reserved -- I guess it's a holiday here right now? -- I got a confirmation about where I could find the bike and a combination to a lock. When you're done, you return it to the same place and lock it up. It's as simple as that.

click to enlarge BikeSurf bikes get whimsical names via their previous owners. - BIKESURF.ORG
  • BikeSurf bikes get whimsical names via their previous owners.

I got in touch with Olga Andreeva of, and she answered a few questions I had about the service.

SFW: BikeSurf is in Germany, Ireland, Norway, Poland, Chile, and Portugal now. Where will it expand next?

OA: The thing is we don't know -- and that's what makes BikeSurf project so exciting. The Berlin team (Berlin is the first location of BikeSurf) is not involved directly in creating similar projects around the globe. However, this year we've launched the new website which makes it very easy to use the platform and mechanisms to organize BikeSurf in any other given city. For sure we provide all the necessary help needed and give advice about how we are running the project here in Berlin, when people approach us with the proposal for new location.

As for concrete plans -- we're currently talking with Spain, France, and New Zealand about what is possible to do there. However, as said before, you never know. Perhaps, San Francisco comes next.

SFW: I felt like it could have been easier for me to rent a bike if BikeSurf had an interactive reservation calendar or something. Any plans to develop a feature like that?

OA: We feel your pain and appreciate all the feedback we receive to make the website better and more user-friendly. The website is very new (we moved in March only) so we still have a long to-do list, but believe me, sooner than later we are going to be all tip-top. Easier registration (creation of profile), booking system (including the calendar feature you mention), as well as general streamlining of the website information is on top of the list.

SFW: Early bike share programs, like the one in Amsterdam and France, had problems with their bikes disappearing or being damaged. Have you had any trouble with that? Do the bikes usually make it back in good shape?

OA: Our bike-sharing system is based solely on trust: We don't get any deposit for the bike. Despite that, (or due to that, because for sure such concept attract certain-minded people) in general our bikes make it back in good shape. They actually do make it back, which is quite exciting and raises our faith in humanity.

During two years of running the project some bikes have retired (but it was the natural process), others donated their parts to support the rest of the fleet, and some, sadly, got stolen from the streets. Even pretty good locks and security advices we provide our BikeSurfers with can not guarantee that the bikes would not be favored by some of the many Berlin bike thieves.

SFW: What kind of organization is BikeSurf? Is it supported solely on donations? How many people are involved? Is it mostly volunteers?

OA: BikeSurf team consists solely of volunteers of various backgrounds and skills: bike mechanics, logistics, IT, fundraising, PR and others.

The team is an open concept -- new people join, while others get less involved. At the moment there are around 15 people, who contribute to the project regularly.

SFW: How has the response to BikeSurf been?

OA: It is so rewarding to read the impression from the users -- both before their experience with BikeSurf and after. Until today, we had more than 600 BikeSurfers from all around the world.

After speaking with her, I could visualize the San Francisco Coalition or nonprofit shops such as Working Bikes or Street Level Cycles rising to this very challenge. But for now, it looks like you're all stuck with paying for your sharing economy.

Leif Haven is a writer and cyclist living in the Bay Area. He can be spotted dragging himself up a hill -- literally and metaphorically.

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About The Author

Leif Haven

Leif Haven

Leif Haven is a writer and cyclist living in the Bay Area. He can be spotted dragging himself up a hill — literally and metaphorically.


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