Monday, 12:00am
30 July 2007

My (red and) white bicycle (Web only)

Barcelona's Bicing is a triumph, but its logo seems to have been improvised with a magic marker.

By Rick Poynor

Written exclusively for

We noticed the little bikes immediately. Everywhere you go in Barcelona one of the red-framed machines with striking white mud guards seems to be zipping by. They were clearly for hire and it wasn’t long before we came across one of the stations where they are parked in long, inviting rows. A card of some kind was evidently needed to release one of these nifty roadsters for use, but was it a credit card? It wasn’t obvious from the instructions in Spanish and Catalan and in the days ahead we saw other tourists trying unsuccessfully to swipe the card reader with their plastic.

We concluded that the Bicing bike service, evidently an official venture rather than a purely commercial operation, wasn’t intended for temporary visitors. It was introduced in March 2007 by the Ajuntament (council) of Barcelona and by June 50,000 residents had signed up. For 24 euros a year, locals receive a card in the post, which can be used at any of the 100 Bicing stations around the city. The fleet stands at 1500 bikes, but many more will be needed to handle the demand for environmentally friendly, two-wheeled transport.

The service seems almost crazily inexpensive. The first 30 minutes are free; after that it costs 0.30 euros for every half hour up to a maximum of two hours. The bikes are attractive machines with a low-slung frame suitable for both sexes and the chain is sensibly enclosed. They are equipped with three gears, lights, a bell and a basket holder. A quick release allows you to adjust the seat, and there is an identification number on the front mudguard. The technicalities of releasing and docking the bikes are particularly well resolved.

As a branding exercise, Bicing is a triumph. The stations are exemplary pieces of street furniture, and the bikes have a distinctive image that sets them apart from ordinary two-wheelers. It's odd, though, when the identity of the service as a whole is so assertive, that the Bicing logo splashed across the rear mudguard should be so weak. Inexplicably dated for a city once noted for its vibrant graphics, it looks like something knocked up in a careless moment by someone doodling with a magic marker. The thin, speedy curves above the logo seem to belong to a different scheme.

Barcelona’s authorities hope to reduce traffic congestion and air pollution. Less hostile to cyclists than it used to be, the city has dedicated bike paths in some areas, particularly along the waterfront, but it will need more if the service is to thrive. Other European cities are implementing similar schemes. Lyon has one and Paris recently launched Vélib (a combination of ‘vélo’ and ‘liberté’) with 10,600 bikes at 750 stations across the city. Decades after Amsterdam's free ‘white bicycle’ scheme fell apart (people kept stealing the bikes) the idea of a regulated, pedal-powered mass transit system is gaining ground. It’s a sign of the commercial times that the French projects are co-funded by the advertising corporation J. C. Decaux, which receives prime advertising spaces in return.

In Barcelona, the service has had its problems. Damage is inevitable and, despite the efforts of touring repair trucks, some Bicing users complain about bikes with gears that slip and saddles that won’t stay locked in position. At busy times of day demand can sometimes exceed supply and queues form with no guarantee that a free bike will turn up, and when the stations are full, it may be necessary to cycle on to the next one to find somewhere to park. But these are just the growing pains of a socially enlightened and ambitious project that points the way forward for any progressive city.