Madrid may be late to the game, but its first public bike-share program is arriving with distinct style. Unlike London's bike share scheme
-- known as "Boris Bikes" after mayor Boris Johnson -- and Paris's Vélib
bikes will be electric.
While you pedal, the little electric engine will push you along at a steady 20 km/hr, and will cut out after 16 km for security and safety reasons.
The roll out of the elegant white model, which weighs in at 25.5 kilos, begins May 1, and should be complete by the middle of the month. In all, there will be 124 bike stations dotted around the center of the city, offering 1,560 bikes available 24 hours a day, year round.
Aside from giving you a boost with your ride, BiciMad sets itself apart in another way: its fee system. The first half hour is no longer free. You are charged the moment you get on the bike: 50 cents for the first 30 minutes, an additional 1.10 euros for the next 30 minutes, another 1.70 euros for the third half hour and so forth. This is after paying your 25 euro annual membership (or 15 euros for people with bus passes). The result is that heavy users will pay more.
Most bike share programs (London, Paris, New York, Montreal, etc.) do offer the first half hour free to encourage people to use the bikes. So the question with this model will be if people are willing to pay per ride. It takes the spontaneity out of the decision. Plus, if you already have a bus pass, would you want to pay extra to use a bike?
For tourists, on the other hand, BiciMad could be a gift. (The charge will be 2 euros for the first 60 minutes and 4 euros for each additional hour.) Added to that, Madrid has the perfect biking climate and the bike stands themselves are located in the most historic districts of city, near the great art museums, parks, and the palace.
(Paris's Vélib system. Source: Mario Ortiz)
Whether tourists or residents end up being the biggest users, the stickier issue may be financing. With the shining exception of Vélib in Paris, bike share programs have generally had a rocky economic history, most struggling to raise money and cover costs.
BiciMad's budget is a relatively modest 25 million euros and is part of a larger traffic management plan the city is putting in place at a cost of 884 million euros. But it, too, has already met with controversy.
The Spanish company Bonopark, in collaboration with Alta Bicycle Share (the company that runs New York's Citi Bikes), won the contract to supply the bike stands, software, and system to the city. But Bonopark has been accused by La Asociación de Marcas y Bicicletas de España of bending the rules to win the contract. On its own, the association says, Bonopark wouldn't have qualified as a contender for the bid.
At the same time, New York City officials criticized Alta Bicycle Share last month for falling down on its contract obligations to the Citi Bike program, which itself is facing financial and operational challenges.
But considering Madrid's long history of ignoring bikes, BiciMad is a big step forward. Cars have traditionally held sway in the capital--as evidenced by the lack of dedicated bike lanes. The government plans to rectify that by building 70 kilometers of new paths in the city center. (Although the city already has 316 km of bike paths, most are on the outskirts or in parkland.)
To smooth the introduction of BiciMad, and encourage peaceful "coexistence," the government launched an advertising campaign April 7, with a second planned for May 5. The message is heavy on respect -- "Nos mueve el respeto. Gracias Madrid" (Lets move with respect. Thanks, Madrid)--and tries to raise the visibility of bike use, and promote it as a means of transport.
Fliers point out some basic "rules of the road" for pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers, and the city has reissued a free booklet called "Guia Ciclista de Madrid" ("A cyclist's guide to Madrid.")
With only two weeks to go, there's still no sign of a website, but perhaps May 1 will be the big reveal. Either way, the next time you're in Madrid, you may want to take one of these bikes for a test run -- up a hill!