Public bike rental inauguration falls flat

Technical glitches hinder a service that Madrid City Hall had been promising since 2009

A BiciMad docking station in Madrid. / EL PAÍS

Technical glitches put a damper on the inauguration of Madrid’s public rental bike service on Monday.

The BiciMad network has 1,560 electric bicycles scattered across 123 docking stations within the city center. Yet the only bikes that actually circulated through the streets of the capital were the 70 units that the city lent reporters, cycling associations and experts for the day.

“Today is the day,” said Mayor Ana Botella on Monday morning, as she became one of the first people to pedal from City Hall to Retiro Park. “Madrid is inaugurating its public bicycles.”

The mayor had described the computer system as “easy, intuitive and very easy to use”

But the truth is, many stations were still not operational, while others did not have bicycles. At other stations, customers found blocked screens when they attempted to purchase the membership card that is required to use the service. The screens that did appear to work were extremely slow, and ultimately also froze up before completing the customer’s request.

Bonopark, the company that was awarded the city contract to run the network, told EL PAÍS that the “huge” demand from users had affected its computers and slowed them down. “We are working to get that fixed,” said a spokesperson, without offering a date. The Navarre-based company will receive €25 million from the city of the Madrid over the next decade.

City sources said that around 600 people had registered throughout the morning. By the end of the day there were more than 1,000, according to Bonopark, which did not specify what volume its computers are prepared to deal with.

The location of the bike stations in Madrid.

Madrid has a population of 3,215,633. Bicycle use has tripled since 2006, although it still represents less than one percent of all trips on wheels.

The plan to bring public rental bikes to Madrid had been announced by former mayor (and current justice minister) Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón in 2009, but delays kept pushing it back. While the city has joined the game late, it is still aiming for a record: to be the first European capital with a system based on electric bikes.

Public rental bikes were “the missing piece of the puzzle” in Madrid’s urban mobility policy, according to Botella, who described the computerized registration system as “easy, intuitive and very easy to use.”

On day one of the service, however, it was anything but that.

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