Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Will success kill 'Bicing', Barcelona's new public bicycling system?


Below is my translation of an article by JAUME BAUZÀ from last Sunday's El Pais newspaper.
Click on the title below if you want to read the original Spanish version.
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Success threatens to drown 'bicing'
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In biology it is said that an insect survives because it is small, but that if it grew to the size of a cow, it would suffocate. Something similar could happen to Bicing, with its overwhelming success in Barcelona.
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The public transportation system established by City Hall last March has already has attracted 70,000 users so far -- a figure that grows by 1,000 new subscriptions a day. However, the number of available bicycles is much lower: 1,500 located at 100 stations. This difference between supply and demand is starting to cause problems in getting hold of a bicycle.
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Empty stations for much of the day, queues to get hold of one the prized methods of transport and users who, after an initial phase of skepticism followed by enthusiasm for the innovative service, are beginning to grow impatient.
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"The other day I had to go to three stations until I found a bicycle. If it to had gone home on foot since at the start, I would have arrived there earlier," said Ana at a stop near the cathedral.
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"At first there was no problem, but when I leave for work it's a miracle to find a bike," claimed Antoni in the Eixample area.
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Although the majority of users consulted believe that Bicing is an excellent initiative, a lot of criticism was expressed about the lack of bicycles. Nevertheless, those responsible for the program are not worried.
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"I don't believe there is a serious imbalance between supply and demand. At any rate, the service is still not up and running 100%," stated a spokesman of Barcelona Municipal Services, the public business that operates the new urban transportation system. City Hall foresees by year's end 3.000 bicycles in circulation, distributed through 200 stations all over the city. But how many users will have registered by then?
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"Now we are in a state of flux. With the summer's arrival the promotional [membership] rate of six euros annually has ended. It doesn't seem probable that the number of requests will continue at this pace after September."
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The system is seen as an alternative method of public transportation, so it only allows for trips of half an hour. In case that time limit is surpassed, the user is penalized 30 cents. This way the bicycles move constantly. Clear Channel, the company that put the service operation in Barcelona, reported that there have already been more than 500,000 trips recorded.
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"According to our calculations, each bicycle is used an average of 12 times a day and we believe that those rotations will rise to 15 by the end of the year. So when they say that there are few bicycles, one must keep in mind that they are in continuous movement," City Hall said in response to the criticism.
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At Barcelona Municipal Services, they prefer that things develop naturally. "It's logical that in the future some users will drop the service, having tired of not finding a bicycle. Thus the supply and demand will balance out," explained the municipal spokesman. "At any rate, it's still very early to speculate on that question. The system is new. We started from scratch and we need a year to study where the gaps are and find solutions", affirmed this spokesman.
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The advantages of Bicing are undeniable and explain why Barcelonans have been tripping over their feet to get at this service. It's comfortable, ecological and cheap. According to a profile provided by City Hall, the average user is more than 35 years old (48%), is a professional with an advanced degree (30,6%), lives in the Eixample (26,4%) and uses the bike an average of 15 minutes.
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To absorb such user demand, the town council is working towards installing a new station every day. The Bicing map already includes 75 stations that extend all over the city. For example, the six kilometers that separate Plaza d' Espanya and Glòries can be covered in 28 minutes traveling almost in straight line along Gran Via. The stress and heat produced by cars in two lanes, pedestrians that cross the street without looking and furious cabdrivers suggest making the return trip by Metro. The eight stations that separate both Plazas require 12 minutes travel time.
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Such a system is necessary, many citizens say, above all in a metropolis that has always boasted of treating bicycles well. But success can also kill and the flood of users threatens to reduce the effectiveness of the service.
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"There are things that need fine tuning, but in July we'll have 150 maintenance and distribution staff, 10 vehicles with trailers to carry bicycles and another four vehicles for maintenance. So, we'll fill up empty stations more quickly," pronounced City Hall.

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