Bristol (UK) has just become the first city in the country to start a bike share scheme, and it’s getting all manner of flak for it. The main argument against seems to be that “Bristol is hilly” which is hardly an astute observation if you’ve ever been there, but apparently a shock to journalists from London.

Germany has several bike share schemes: I know this will annoy the French, but several cities in Germany had quietly embraced the idea years before it caught on in Paris. Stuttgart, which is possibly even more hilly than Bristol, has a successful bike share system run by German Railways (Deutsche Bahn, or DB). The ‘Call-a-bike’ network was launched in 2007 with 400 bikes at somewhere between 50-65 hubs around the city depending on who you ask. It works using mobile phones which has the advantage that they know who is using any bike at any time, Despite this Stuttgart is fussy about you bringing the bike back to the hub you got it from, but on the other hand the first half hour is free. The system has been an instant success and it’s been was expanded since it opened. (I guess that’s where the different numbers come from, so much for Teutonic accuracy).

Stuttgarts traffic is probably a bit safer for cycling than Bristols, but we also have tramlines on a number of streets, and other streets that are so steep they give up and become staircases. So can Stuttgarters handle hills better than Bristolians? I doubt it, especially after a few beers. The major difference in the two systems is the numbers of bikes. Stuttgart has 400 bikes in 60 Hubs. Now Wikipedia says the centre of Stuttgart (where the bikes are) is home to 590 497 people  (or at least, it was on the first of June 2008). My maths is a bit fuzzy but I think that works out as a bit less that one bike per 1500 people living the centre. And you thought talking about bike parts was as boring as I can get.

Hourbike‘, Bristol’s foray into the brave new world of bike share, involved much fanfare and eighteen bikes in four stations. Yes you did read that correctly. Eighteen. According to Wikipedia and my fuzzy maths, if the population of central Bristol all decided to join, over 23000 people would be lining up for each bike. That’s bad enough, but the four locations don’t include  the main railway station. Now call me obtuse, but if I was going to make a bike share system, I’d make darn sure it feeds the main public transport hubs. Last time I was in Stuttgart I found four hubs of about twenty bikes around the main station in the city, or to put it another way, more bikes than serve the whole city of Bristol, and there’s still 61 hubs elsewhere.

Bristol has a chance to prove everyone wrong and become a flagship city like Paris -and for the record, I hope they do- if it starts taking it seriously and stops faffing about. To get the same ratio as Stuttgart only requires 300 bikes, give or take, and perhaps a lot of publicity, and you have a prestige project begging for a politician to sponsor it. Any takers?