No need to revisit a long history with many false starts. Let's just say that bike sharing properly took off with Paris. Ten years ago the Velib project was launched. It was the first major bike-sharing program in a major city that was a major success. It was also part of a comprehensive strategy to reduce automotive traffic and make the city a better place to be. Today, motorized traffic in Paris is substantially down compared to ten years ago.
Correlation is not causation. This bears repeating in these increasingly un-scientific or even science-hostile times, with the loudest shouts from the least literate people. Correlation is not causation, and yet it's an interesting observation. At the very least it suggests that traffic can be reduced.
Other big cities followed the Paris lead, London in 2010 and New York in 2013. There are probably bigger cities in China with bigger bike-sharing schemes, but what do I know? I know London and New York, and I was a user of the shared bikes in London from day one. I really liked the bikes.
It seems to defy the laws of engineering, but the shared bikes in London appear not to have any moving parts besides the wheels. Cables are routed inside the bulky frame. The headlight is part of it. The chain is completely enclosed. Nothing is exposed and nothing can break easily. The bikes are solid, sturdy and unbelievably heavy. It's hard to get them to move, but once in motion, they roll like tanks and demand respect. Notoriously aggressive black cab drivers brake because in case of a collision both sides would suffer damage. Between rides, the bikes slot into hefty docking stations much like a door shuts on a Mercedes, with a stifled clonk. The whole system is engineered for durability.
Recently, a number of bike sharing schemes of a much different philosophy have been launched in various parts of Switzerland. They don't rely on (or even provide) docking stations. Instead, they try to leverage the power of the internet. The bikes are networked and locked. If registered users of the service find one, either by coming across it or checking a live map online, they can scan a code on the bicycle with their phone and unlock it. After riding around, they drop the bike wherever and lock it, thus ending the rental.
If this sounds eminently convenient, it's not very well thought out. Everything about the system that I'm exposed to appalls me. The bicycles look flimsy and are often irredeemably broken. They seem like cheap Chinese trinkets, though the provider is Singaporean. I don't see how bikes of such low quality can survive more than a handful of rides by users free of the responsibilities of ownership. It doesn't help when they're not being ridden. Not having docking stations, the bikes lean against trees or lie on the ground as if abandoned. This is no way of treating bicycles.
Then there are the problems with free-floating, self-regulating systems. Classical economists like them, but they rarely work in practice. Without a maintenance crew, wrecked bicycles pile up, turning sidewalks into steeplechases and blocking narrow roads. There's no redistribution of bikes to where they are needed. The market doesn't sort this out easily. Getting bicycles ready for masses of commuters arriving at the same time was a major logistical challenge in London.
With the arrogance of a self-proclaimed disruptive startup, the company dumps the bicycles everywhere, no matter whether they're wanted. Externalities are for society to pick up. I will have to pay for the removal of broken bikes with my taxes. I pay for bicycles occupying bike parking spots downtown by having to look longer for a spot for myself. Early investors might be happy with fast growth at any cost, but this is not a sustainable model.
Free-floating bike sharing has the potential to improve local transport much beyond what docked bicycles can offer. The flexibility is wonderful. But there has to be a system behind it that puts respect of the bicycle at its heart. Once it looks like bike sharing and not like milking a trend, it has the chance to succeed. I would sign up in a jiffy.