Courtesy of Mezikavárenská půjčovna kol

A couple of cafes in the Czech Republic have created their own bare-bones bike-share, proving you don’t have to go big to succeed.

Buy a coffee, and we’ll lend you a free bike. This is the idea behind a novel kind of bike-share scheme in the Czech Republic, where group of cafes in Brno, the country’s second-largest city, have come together to offer customers free biking. Dropping in for a drink, all users need to do is put down a deposit of 300 Crown ($16) and they get a lock, a folding bike and a request to turn it in at the end of the day at any of the participating centers. Amazingly given some bike-share schemes' growing pains, organizers have had no problems with abuse or theft since the project started last year.

Brno’s project is small – so far only five bike points are involved – but the city’s alternative and apparently unique model still has some very useful lessons for other cities looking to get more citizens biking.

Firstly, Brno shows that you don’t always have to go big, either in bike numbers or in sponsors. Major bike-share schemes typically involve major enterprises like Citibank and Barclays, but Brno’s participants are all small, local businesses – its hub is a café, bar and arts venue in Brno’s old city called Kavarna Trojka. While participants like Trojka need to take a long view, they clearly believe they can recoup their investment in a few bikes by encouraging more customers to buy drinks, by developing user loyalty and creating a city-wide publicity platform for themselves and the events they host.

Secondly, micro-schemes mean you don’t necessarily need to invest in new infrastructure. Brno has no docking stations, specially designed vehicles or bike redistribution system. All it relies on is participating venues having enough space to store some fold-up bikes.

Brno's city center. Shchipkova Elena /Shutterstock.com

Thirdly, Brno proves that you can have private bike-share start-ups even in cities lacking the cash or political momentum to create larger public schemes. With 385,000 citizens, the city isn’t huge and, while much of it is very attractive, it’s not really a major tourism magnet either. But while no municipal bike-share scheme has been set up there yet, Brno is still highly suitable for cyclists. Its largely 19th century center is already semi-pedestrianized and its street plan is often too narrow and twisting to accommodate cars easily. The scheme is no solution for commuters, but picking up a bike after breakfast or coffee to run around town on is both easy and cheap.

Brno’s plan has clear and self-imposed limitations of course. Run by volunteers, its plan is to expand only gradually, while its users are more likely to be the sort of people who frequent artsy cafés than a broad cross-section of the city’s population.

This could, however, have the effect of creating a more conscious biking community that feels it has a stake in the scheme. Scheme organizer Pavel Baďura told Czech site iDnes.cz:

I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by the fact that those who borrow the bikes are so responsible. I expected that all of the cafés involved would have to keep a closer eye on things and put more effort into getting people to return the bikes and to treat them well. But so far it’s been quite the opposite.

In assessing Brno’s possible relevance to the future of bike-sharing, the spread of public Wi-Fi is perhaps a good model. While ubiquitous Internet access may well be on the way, cafes the world over have long been making up for coverage gaps by attracting customers with free broadband. With bike-share taking off globally, we may likewise be working towards a world where many more cities have some form of cheap or free cycling scheme. But in the meantime, initiatives like Brno’s can help plug gaps. By feeding an enthusiasm for urban cycling, they demonstrate that even in places with little political might backing bike-share, the public appetite is still out there.

Top image courtesy of Mezikavárenská půjčovna kol.

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