Can Bike Sharing Survive in India?


A couple of years ago, starting a public bike-share system seemed a tall order for Bhopal, a city of around 1.7 million in Central India. In 2015, the proposal was met with ample skepticism from politicians, residents, and nonprofits. “In a city where sewerage and supply of drinking water are the major issues, [the Bhopal Municipal Corporation] and the government is busy copying foreign countries,”one politician quipped in The Hindustan Times.

This June, the same city kicked off India’s first fully-automated, fully integrated public bike-share system—and it’s off to a pretty good start. Within 15 days of its inauguration, around 10,000 people signed up—entirely on mobile. Over half were women. On weekends, especially, the usage has been high, particularly among youth and families. And already, requests are coming in to have more bike share docks in neighborhoods that don’t currently have them.

It’s early days, but that kind of response has been heartening to Indian urbanists—it signals a change in the conversation around biking in India, where building cycling infrastructure tends to be overshadowed by more pressing urban issues of poverty, pollution, and shoddy housing. Just like their counterparts in China, Indian cities are discovering the virtues of this greener mobility alternative. But the next question is: Can cities translate that excitement into long-term success?

Smaller cities are leading India’s bike share revolution

Previous bike sharing efforts in Indian cities have largely been unsuccessful. That’s because they were “not bike sharing but bike rental projects,”says Amit Bhatt, head of integrated urban transport at the World Resources Institute’s India Sustainable Cities program. The pilots failed because they were small and not integrated with existing public transit. And they were missing several critical ingredients, such as safer street design. Even in cities with bike lanes, motorists ignored them, as the rules were not clearly explained or enforced. And the bikes were clunky and odious to ride. In other words, even in places where with the political will and proper infrastructure to pursue the idea, the programs themselves were ill-conceived. “Earlier, [cities] were only doing these projects for the sake of it,” Bhatt says. “There were no clear-cut intentions behind them.”

But things seem to have changed over the last two years, in part, due to the government’s smart cities mission in partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies. The newfound emphasis on sustainable mobility has elevated the conversation about biking infrastructure. Many of the participating cities are now seriously considering public bike sharing systems as a part of their smart cities agenda—and they have the funds to implement them.

So far, mid-sized and smaller cities like Bhopal and Mysore have been the first to roll out state-of-the art 3rd generation bike share systems. Bhopal’s, in particular, is noteworthy. It includes 500 shiny German-made bicycles available at over 50 docking stations, and comes with a two 16-feet-wide bright red bike lanes, running along an existing BRT corridor. The smart bicycles look swanky, come fitted with GPS and anti-theft technology, and are pretty easy and cheap to use. The first half hour of usage costs 10 rupees (around 15 cents), and increases by that amount for every additional hour. A one-year membership runs 999 rupees—roughly $15. The registration process is completely cashless—users just need a cellphone and a credit card.