Nihan Akyelken, University of Oxford, UK

The reliance on innovative ideas has become even more evident in the post-crisis economy: there is a widely-held belief that we need new products and services and new ways of doing things. Innovations are all over the economy and are almost considered to be rescuers of the current adverse societal trends. Urban mobility is a policy area, where several technological and behavioural changes are currently widespread; for example driverless cars, car-less drivers, online ridesharing platforms, app-based taxi schemes, and bike sharing schemes. Bike sharing schemes (BSS) are particularly interesting due to their increasingly crucial role in public transport systems in cities. At first sight, they seem to be most compliant with the existing governance system amongst all, but a closer look into their emergence and diffusion still yields interesting insights into how “the public versus private debate” is changing.

Bike sharing refers to shared use of a bicycle fleet provided on a temporary basis. BSS have positive impacts on urban sustainability through reliving congestion, reducing air pollution in cities and providing public health benefits. While it dates back to 1960s in Amsterdam, where bicycles were placed in the city centre randomly for free use, bike sharing has attracted significant attention in the policy and academic discourse particularly since the 2000s (e.g. Fishman et al., 2013). Many current BSS entail the use of information technology (IT) (Shaheen et al., 2010). The questions of who are the (targeted) users, where bikes are placed and how the system is governed have significant implications for access and eventually for social exclusions. Social implications of sharing practices can only be understood by elucidating the emergent political economy of these innovations particularly in terms of their emergence.

The emergence of bike sharing is defined in terms of chronological stages, i.e. through four generations. These include the White Bikes in Amsterdam in 1960s, coin-operated sharing systems, IT-enabled bike sharing systems and demand-responsive and multi-modal systems (Shaheen et al., 2010). While this chronological typology of the four generations of BSS is useful for elucidating the lessons learned from different experiences, it may be misleading to understand the emergence of bıke sharing across historical contexts. For example, it should be noted that the White Bikes in 1960s was initiated by an environmental activist group (Walks et al., 2015), while the coin-operated schemes and IT-based systems have been run by public and private bodies. The key actors in the emergence of the schemes may determine how the schemes develop over time. Why and how bike sharing came into existence is an important question that should not be hidden within chronological typologies. Without looking into these drivers, it is almost impossible to assess the social implications and whether or why we need bike sharing systems while cities with strong cycling culture emerged without them.

The local businesses have an increasingly large role to play in the uptake of the services. The targeted population of bike sharing is different to other mode-shifting policies. The policy driver behind many bike sharing systems is to introduce non-cyclists to cycling without having adverse impacts on the existing cyclists (Akyelken et al., 2014). Yet, it could be argued that it has almost become an institutional product targeting businesses. Given the increase in the uptake of bike sharing for commuting purposes, the potential of businesses to become users is expected. Any assessment should therefore put equal emphasis on the potential uptake of the schemes by institutions. What kind of governance elements becomes important to support city-business relationship to promote bike sharing? Additionally, funding of bike sharing schemes include varied public and private elements such as contracts between private providers and cities and national health funds. These are in turn likely to determine the future potential users and hence distribution of the benefits of the scheme. Are the existing schemes – for example the London Cycle Hire scheme- extensive enough to cover low-income neighbourhoods in outer regions? What actions have been taken to increase the uptake of the services in the low income neighbourhoods?

It is therefore important to go beyond the conventional understanding of state-market relationships when evaluating the political economy of bike sharing for social implications. “Public vs. private” remains a vain distinction in assessing the political economy of these schemes. It could be argued that bike sharing emerged as an idea rather than a viable solution. Is it then possible to treat bike sharing as a policy to elucidate how it emerged and its impact on energy consumption and social impacts? Or should we first conceptualise it as a policy idea and then analyse how the existing institutions, geographical context and interests have altered throughout the process?


Akyelken, N., Anderton, K., Mont, O., Plepys, A. and Kaufman, D. (2014) Mobility report. Deliverable 5.1 of SPREE – Funded by The European Commission 7th RTD Programme, Oxford, UK.

Fishman, E., Washington, S. and Howarth, N., 2013. Bicycleshare: A synthesis of the literature. Transport Reviews, 33 (2), pp. 148-165.

Shaheen, S., Guzman, S. and Zhang, H., 2010. Bikesharing in Europe, the Americas and Asia: Past, present and future. Transportation Research Record, No. 2143, pp. 159-167.

Walks, A., Siemiatycki, M. and Smith, M. (2015). Political cycles: promoting velomobility in the automobile city. In: Walks, A. (ed.) The urban political economy and ecology of automobility: Driving cities. Oxford: Routledge, Chapter 13.





Author Biography

nihanNihan is a Research Fellow and Departmental Lecturer at the University of Oxford, UK. Nihan’s research interests span economic geography, regional and urban political economy and development planning and policy. She is primarily interested in the issues related to the distribution of urban and regional economic interventions. The current focus of her empirical research is on social inequalities and regional economic growth, transport infrastructure investments and labour markets, governance of urban transport innovations. She holds undergraduate and master degrees from the London School of Economics in the areas of Economics and Philosophy and European Political Economy and received her DPhil degree at Oxford University. She has worked on research projects funded by the European Commission, UK Research Councils, the World Bank, and the British Academy and has held academic awards from OECD-ITF, Wolfson College, Alan Nesta Ferguson Foundation, and LSE Award Schemes.

Contact email: nihan.akyelken@ouce.ox.ac.uk


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Dialogues of sustainable urbanisation: Social science research and transitions to urban contexts Copyright © 2015 by Nihan Akyelken, University of Oxford, UK is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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