Last summer The Soap Group, a creative marketing/branding/design agency here in Portland, Maine, came up with a very cool idea they called WhiteBike. It was a simple start; they found 10 "reject" bikes, spiffed and tuned them up, painted them white, and put them on the streets of Portland, each needing the same code to unlock — 2 4 5 3 — which they then shared with everyone.

Anyone could use the white bikes; they were just asked to lock them up in public after their ride.

Free bikes are awesome. Paris launched a program similar to WhiteBike back in 2007 but went in the opposite direction in terms of cost and quantity — their Vélib bikes cost thousands (the exact price has been said to be from $1,300 to $3,500 each) and they put over 20,000 of them on the streets, serviced by 1,450 stations. They bikes aren't free, but close enough — it costs about $40/year for a pass, a single day will set you back about a buck and a half.

The program hasn't been without its problems — thousands of bikes were stolen in the first year and it's estimated that 80 percent of the initial 20,600 put into circulation have been replaced in the first couple of years because they were swiped or damaged. Managing the logistics of inventory control among the 1,450 stations has proven to be a challenge but it's one that JCDecaux, the big advertising agency financing the project (in exchange for the right to use city owned billboards) is contractually on the hook for a decade to solve; one would assume they'll work out most of the major kinks in that time.

On a fun side note, a quick search of YouTube turned up this video of a French freestyle rider pulling a backflip in a skate park on a Vélib and another dude doing flatland tricks.

The fully green cities of the future will have free and/or very cheap ubiquitous bike sharing services. Most will fall somewhere in between Portland's WhiteBikes and the Vélib bikes of Paris, all will owe something to both cities for the hard lessons learned at the start. My friend John Rooks at The Soap Group tells me what the most exciting thing about his project was the inquiries he fielded from cities and universities interested in doing something similar back at home. The idea is spreading.

I would guess that most of the early projects here in the U.S. will be funded by local government, but there will also be lucrative business models carved out of the space. The concept is so new in the U.S. (D.C. launched a program similar to the Vélib with 120 bikes last year) that it could take a few years for the entrepreneurs to find the right path to profitability. Free bikes have an exciting future.

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