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In 2005, the French city of Lyon introduced a shared bicycle system called Velo’v that has since inspired numerous other schemes around the world.

Velo’v differed from earlier schemes in its innovative technology, such as electronic locks, onboard computers and access via smart cards. The system now offers some 4000 bikes at almost 350 stations around the city. Most residents agree that the system has transformed the city from a grid-locked nightmare to a cyclists dream, with some 16,000 journeys now being completed each day.

All this presents researchers with an interesting opportunity. Since its introduction, the system has kept track of the start and finishing location plus travel time of every journey. Today, we get a detailed analysis of this data from Pablo Jensen at the École Normale Supérieure de Lyon and a few amis.

They looked at 11.6 million bicycle trips in Lyon between May 2005 and December 2007. The result is the first robust characterisation of urban bikers’ behaviour, they say.

Some of what they found is unsurprising. Over an average trip, cyclists travel 2.49 km in 14.7 minutes so their average speed is about 10 km/h. That compares well with the average car speed in inner cities across Europe.

During the rush hour, however, the average speed rises to almost 15 km/h, a speed which outstrips the average car speed. And that’s not including the time it takes to find a place to park which is much easier for a Velo’v bike than a car.

Other results reveal the habits of the urban cyclist for the first time. For example, there is a clear peak in average speed at 7.45 am and 8.45 am on working days, when presumably there is rush to get to work. The average speed drops to a more leisurely 10 km/h at weekends.

Curiously, the Wednesday morning speeds are systematically higher than on other days, even though there is no change in other factors such as the number of cars. This, say Jensen and co, is probably because women tend to stay at home and look after their children on a Wednesday in France. So the higher proportion of men pushes up the average speed.

The data also shows that bike journeys between two points are shorter in distance than the corresponding journey by car. There are no bike lanes in Lyon so this suggests that cyclists use other techniques to make short cuts, say Jensen and co. Their shocking conclusion is that cyclists often ride on the pavement, along bus lanes and the wrong way up one way streets.

That kind of information will be useful for urban planners. For the first time they have real data to show where to build cycle lanes and how well they will be used. So expect to see more of this kind of analysis as data from smart bike systems in other cities becomes available too.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1011.6266: Characterizing The Speed And Paths Of Shared Bicycles In Lyon

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