Case study

Bicycle share schemes and the promotion of physical activity

Katherine G. Elliston, University of Tasmania

This case study outlines the pros and cons to bicycle share schemes and how they may lead to increases in physical activity around cities.

Around the world, bicycle share schemes are increasingly being used as a way to combat physical inactivity. Bicycle share schemes involve bicycles being available for public hire, with various pick-up and drop-off locations around the city. Hiring bicycles enables individuals to travel between places without the need to carry around their own bicycle.

Commuters may be encouraged to try bicycle hire, perhaps instead of using public transport. This enables individuals to engage in physical activity while travelling between places. Studies have shown switching from driving a car to riding a bike to and from work increases the likelihood that an individual will meet the daily physical activity recommendations, ultimately adding 3-14 months to one’s life expectancy (e.g., de Hartog et al., 2010). Furthermore, bicycle share schemes may be particularly suited to travellers. Cycling allows tourists to see cities as the locals do. As bicycle share schemes eliminate the need to carry one’s personal bicycle, share bicycles can be returned when no longer needed; thereby being a flexible travel option requiring little planning ahead.

Cycling is not only a healthy mode of transport, it is environmentally friendly too. Cycling produces a far smaller carbon footprint than driving or using public transport. Given the health benefits for both individuals and the environment, bicycle share schemes are increasingly being adopted by cities around the world (Goodman, Green & Woodcock, 2014). Introducing bicycle share schemes increases both the number of cycling trips and people cycling (Goodman, Green & Woodcock, 2014; Pucher, Dill & Handy, 2010).

Despite the benefits of bicycle share schemes, there are some concerns relating to the schemes. Firstly, there are safety concerns; without the need to own a bicycle, individuals may not own or wear a helmet. Not wearing a helmet poses a safety risk should cyclists be involved in an accident. In Australia, wearing a helmet while cycling is a legal requirement for everyone. However, in countries such as the United States, wearing a helmet is optional or only required among youths. As a result, only 20% of bicycle share scheme users wear a helmet, compared to around 50% of bicycle owners (Fischer et al., 2012).

Secondly, the first time cycling in a new city can be particularly dangerous as cyclists may be yet to learn the local customs and regulations. This is especially a concern when cyclists have to negotiate busy traffic, pedestrians and unfamiliar landscapes. A lack of familiarity with road rules and local legislations can put both cyclists and pedestrians at an increased risk of being involved in an accident.

Finally, users of bicycle share schemes need to work out where to return the bicycles when they have finished using them. This can be particularly challenging in new and unfamiliar cities, possibly leading to dumping the bicycles in non-designated locations, resulting in greater clean-up efforts and an increased economic burden of share scheme operators.

Despite the concerns surrounding bicycle share schemes, the health benefits of cycling have been shown to outweigh the potential risks (e.g., de Hartog Boogaard, Nijland & Hoek, 2010). Across the globe, bicycle share schemes are becoming a popular way for cities to promote physical activity and reduce traffic congestion. Even individuals who do not personally use bicycle share schemes view the schemes favourably (Nikitas, Wallgren & Rexfelt, 2016), suggesting bicycle share schemes are an acceptable public transport and health initiative.


De Hartog, J., Boogaard, H., Nijland, H. & Hoek, G. (2010). Do the Health Benefits of Cycling Outweigh the Risks? Environmental Health Perspectives, 118(8): 1109–1116. Doi: 10.1289/ehp.0901747

Fischer, C., Sanchez, C., Pittman, M., Milzman, D, Volz, K., Huang, H., Gautam, S., Sanchez, L. (2012). Prevalence of Bicycle Helmet Use by Users of Public Bikeshare Programs. Annals of Emergency Medicine, 60(2): 228–231. Doi: 10.1016/j.annemergmed.2012.03.018

Pucher, J., Dill, J. & Handy, S. (2010). Infrastructure, programs, and policies to increase bicycling: An international review. Preventive Medicine, 50: S106–S125. Doi: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2009.07.028

Nikitas, A., Wallgren, P. & Rexfelt, O. (2016). The paradox of public acceptance of bike sharing in Gothenburg. Engineering Sustainability, 169(ES3): 101–113. Doi: 10.1680/jensu.14.00070

Discussion questions

1.   How might bicycle share schemes promote engagement in physical activity?

  • Incidental exercise as individuals travel between places
  • Accessible means of physical activity for everyone
  • Bicycle share schemes normalise cycling as a means of transportation and exercise

2.   What are some of the benefits of bicycle share schemes?

  • Users don’t need to own a bicycle to use public bicycle paths and explore cities
    • Can be particularly good for individuals who are travelling
  • More environmentally friendly than driving/using public transport

3.   What are some of the cons of bicycle share schemes?

  • Safety concerns:
    • Lack of helmet wearing
    • Lack of confidence riding a bicycle
    • Unfamiliarity with local customs/legislations
  • Users need to work out where to return the bicycles when they have finished using them