Copenhagen wants citizens to electrify their commute

Back in December 2009, a colleague and I travelled to Copenhagen to participate in the COP-15 climate talks. I fondly recall the camaraderie we experienced during the 7 hours we queued, with roughly 15,000 other NGO hacks (and a few hundred riot police) outside, in the snow, for accreditation. I learned a valuable lesson about supply and demand that day when I paid EUR 40 for 3 takeaway cappuccinos. Still, we did save the world from climate catastrophe, so all’s well that ends well.

What we failed to do however, due to a combination of lack of time and mild hypothermia, was to check out the city’s world-famous cycle-hire scheme. Copenhagen was the city that first popularised bike sharing back in the ’90s. Now it’s getting rid of its aging coin-operated pushbikes and replacing them with state-of-the-art electric motor–assisted bicycles. The new bikes, which the city tested at the end of 2013, boast motors that can deliver up to 450 watts of power from a battery pack that’s rechargeable at dozens of docking stations around the city.

The scheme is called Cykel DK, and its stated aim is to encourage more people to ditch their cars. As automakers and the burgeoning car-sharing industry suit up to do battle in a new era of mobility-on-demand in cities around the world, it might be worth taking a fresh look at Cykel DK and the numerous other tech-enabled sharing schemes springing up around the world. These include Paris’s celebrated Vélib’, New York’s CitiBike and London’s so-called Boris Bikes. All these schemes use smart docking stations to handle credit card deposits and payments. Cykel DK goes a step further though, utilising a small tablet computer fixed to the handlebars which allows users to reserve and pay for the bike and to navigate with GPS. Customers can also reserve a bike online using their PC or a phone app.

But the key factor in any shared-use scheme is availability, and here’s where the on-board tablets have a trick up their sleeve. If the system detects that a particular dock is receiving more reservation requests than it has bikes, it pings nearby riders with an offer: Leave your bike at the requested location when you’re done and you’ll get credit toward future rides. Cykel DK’s hoping that this will cut the number of expensive shuttles required to keep the city’s bikes where they’re needed and indeed help to keep the overall fleet size (and therefore the costs) to a minimum.

And then there’s the fact that these bikes are motorised and, as such, could have an appeal that reaches beyond committed cyclists. Offering commuters a self-powered vehicle – one that’s smaller and slower than a car, such as Barcelona’s Motit scheme  – is increasingly being viewed by urban authorities as a strategy to reduce the number of cars being driven into city centres. But full-power electric scooters give rise to whole new level of safety and liability issues. Several Chinese cities have banned full-power electric bikes as a result of reckless riders causing thousands of fatal accidents. New York City has done the same. With the electrically assisted bikes favoured by Copenhagen, the scheme operators have the facility to adjust the amount of electric boost the motor provides for different cities. In hillier environments, for example, the motors will need extra boosting capability, up to the bike’s maximum power output of between 400 and 450 watts – but at or below a speed limit set by the city. In flatter cities, bike-share operators could dial-down the current. Copenhagen’s bikes will stop assisting riders above 16 kilometers per hour.

Of course seducing people out of their cars and onto electric bikes will not be easy. And what seems like a fun, convenient alternative in the summer months can lose some of its allure in the November rain. But it’s worth keeping an eye on Copenhagen over the next years. Cykel DK has until late 2014 to bring the system up to the intended scale of 1800 bikes and between 65 and 135 stations, and it has an additional seven years on its contract, so this is a valuable chance for automakers, as well as public authorities, to learn more about shared urban mobility in a real-word setting.