(yes, that is how it is spelt!)

By John Hunt

Barcelona is a city of 4.5 million in the greater urban area, with an old town dating back to Roman times (and before). The city centre, comprising the old town to the city limits, is home to a city-wide bike rental scheme called Bicing www.bicing.com. The following description of Bicing is based on recent observations, conversation with a user and articles on the www. The most interesting aspects for me were the wide usage of Bicing and the lack of compulsory helmet laws.

Bicing is modelled on similar schemes now found in at least 13 cities internationally, the earliest one being in Oslo. It was initially proposed for use of residents and tourists but is now limited to residents only following complaints from city cycle hire operators.

It was initially financed by a car parking levy and opened in 2007 with a budget of €2.23/year for 1500 bikes and 100 bicycle docking stations strategically located to link with bus and metro services around the city. In the first 2 months 30,000 users subscribed to the scheme and by 2008 there were 150,000 subscribers, 6000 bikes, more than 400 stations and serviced by over 375 kms of bike lanes. Bicing is serviced by around 160 staff, 21 vehicles, 3 motorcycles, and 5 station repair terms.

The bikes are worth around €450 each and use a non-standard design, so that parts are not interchangeable, to discourage theft. They budgeted for a theft rate of 10pc / year but the actual rate was around 3pc in 2007. The bikes weigh 16 kgs, have 3 speed hub gears, front and back\n (Shimano Nexus) brakes, a compulsory bell, integral front and rear lights and front hub generator.

They lock into the docking station by 2 hardened 15mm SS lugs, built into the handlebar assembly. The lights are also recharged through the docking station. Each station has a capacity to hold 20 to 40 cycles. Each bike is used on average 8 times a day or 325,000 cycle journeys/week. They are available for 5am to 12 pm Sunday through Thursday and 24 hours on other days.

Users pay an annual fee of €44 and are issued a smart card that allows "unlimited" use, for up to a maximum of 30 minutes in every 40 minutes. Time in excess of 30 minutes is charged at a rate of ?€6 per 15 minutes to a maximum of 2 hours. Longer than that and a SMS warning and €6 fine is issued. Longer than 24 hours and the fine is €150, charged direct to the users credit card. A 3 strikes and loss of card rule applies.

The scheme is basically designed for short trips around town.  Only 6.6pc of users exceed the 30 min free use limit. For around 72pc of users the bikes are their only form of transport. The remaining 28pc combine them with public or private transport. I saw just as many private bikes locked up around town as Bicing bikes.

City cyclists roam freely on footpaths mixing with pedestrians, and on minor roads of the old city. The city cyclists rarely wear helmets but are rarely seen on the major roads mixing with traffic.

Bicing is controlled through a central server which records usage and availability of bikes and spaces at the docking stations. Personal usage records are available on the scheme website www.bicing.com. The main problem with the scheme has been the availability of bikes or bike spaces at particular stations, causing waits if up to 40 mins in peak hours. A fleet of dedicated trucks redistribute the bikes from the more popular destinations.

There are also several bike rental companies who run bicycle tours (€12 for 2 hours) and hourly (€6) and daily (€12).  The rental bikes are "Dutch" style and come with front, back and seat locks and a €3/day insurance policy. Locking the back and front wheels, frame and seat to one of the many bike lock up points is highly recommended with 25pc unemployment.

On the weekends I spied a lot of lycra clad road cyclists on road bikes, MTBs and folding bikes, in small groups on quieter roads. All were wearing helmets.