City cycling

With the introduction of bicycles for public use, Luud Schimmelpenninck hopes to make Amsterdam a "car-free" city

Published: Wednesday 31 March 1999

City cycling

-- in the 1960's, when the Netherlands' economy boomed and politicians promoted "a motor car for every labourer", bicycles were seen as the poor man's transport. But Luud Schimmelpenninck, then in his early twenties and a hippie, thought differently. Under his leadership, a group of rebellious student hippies launched Provo, a social movement, aimed at banning cars from the inner city of Amsterdam and introducing bicycles as the alternative.

When Schimmelpenninck was elected to the city council as a representative of the political wing of Provo a few years later, Schimmelpenninck officially proposed to introduce the "Witte Fietsen Plan" (white bikes) -- a plan for public bicycles to be used for free and maintained by the government. The proposal was turned down by a majority of politicians. But Schimmelpenninck never gave up. Three decades later, his plan for public bikes has evolved into the Depo-system, a means of public transport where people take a special bicycle from a depo-cycle shed with a smartcard, drive it to another depo (depot) near the place they want to go, and park it there.

Each of the depos have a multifunctional unit, where users can insert a smartcard to get a bicycle, make a phone call or surf the Internet. "The image of a bicycle is somehow problematic. By linking the Depo-system to public telephones and Internet connections, we try to give it a more dynamic appearance," says Schimmelpenninck. Users who register at the unit with their cards can also order publicly-shared low emission cars, a compact produced in cooperation with Greenpeace, an environmental organisation.

"For the last five years we have been working on the Depo-system almost over-cautiously," says Schimmelpenninck, now in his fifties but still anxiously on the lookout for new eco-friendly inventions. "In cooperation with the Dutch ministry of transport, we had to work fastidiously. Everything is tested on climatological influences, wear and tear, and resistance to vandalism. Six years ago, we tested the bicycle we meant to use in the Depo-system at the flower auctionhouse of Aalsmeer, near Amsterdam. The experiences we gathered there, together with the tests, resulted in a lot of changes in the design," he says.

The "white bikes" have foam tyres and the lights switch on automatically in the dark. When the bikes are on the stand, the batteries are charged. Chipcards are used for identification as well as payment. Users are registered to prevent the bikes from being taken away from the inner city. "We want to provide the city a clean and free means of transport," says Schimmelpenninck.

Schimmelpenninck wants the system to be self-supporting. "Once the investment in bicycles and infrastructure is made, maintenance costs are minimal. Advertisments on the wheels of all depo-bikes can raise money for maintenance," he says. The Amsterdam city council and the department of transport is investing in the project.

In September this year, the scheme is to be launched on a big scale with 45 depo-stands and 750 bikes. To keep the system functioning efficiently, it is necessary to have at least 70 locations with 2,000 bikes and a stand at every 300 metres. Since distances between different destinations in Amsterdam's Depo-system are not very great, a ride should never exceed half-an-hour. After 30 minutes of use, a resistor makes pedalling harder. When the user feels the extra resistance, it is a sign that the bike should be brought back to a depo. "This ensures that bicycles are not taken out for a ride in the countryside, but stay in the area they are meant for," says Schimmelpenninck.

"The bicycle is a fantastic means of transport with great potential for urban areas," he says. If the system functions well in Amsterdam, a city where bicycles are already a well-known means of transport, Schimmelpenninck hopes to introduce the system in cities like Brussels and London, where the traffic is very heavy.

Hans Buitelaar is a journalist based in Amsterdam.

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