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How to Invent Bike Sharing and Never Be Credited

By Tereza Antonova

As people living in the 2020s, we may think that the Netherlands has been a great cycling power since the beginning of time. But go fifty years back, and you will find out that it took quite some time and effort to bring bicycles to the streets of Dutch cities. The genesis of Dutch bicycle sharing says it all.

As it often happens, it all began with a radical group determined to change the system. The one in question, called Provo, was formed in the 1960s and initially built on the thoughts of anti-smoking campaigner Robert Jasper Grootveld. Soon, the movement whose name evolved from provoceren, a Dutch word for provoking, incorporated other interests and increased in number. After publishing their first manifesto ‘Provocation No. 5’, it was clear that cycling became one of their main interests, along with relieving Amsterdam of pollution. The means to meet their goals was promoting urban cycling, or, more specifically, a shared system of bicycles.

Luud Schimmelpennink in 1967

The greatest proponent of the so-called ‘White Bicycle Plan’, happened to be a man with a brilliant and impossible-to-pronounce name, Laurens Maria Hendrikus Schimmelpennink (from now on referred to as Luud Schimmelpennink). As a true radical, he came up with an unprecedented plan: the city of Amsterdam would buy 20,000 bicycles per year and leave them in the streets for citizens to use freely.

Schimmelpennink’s plan, unfortunately, wasn’t successful and the city authorities refused the proposal. But driven minds and souls never give up. The Provo movement decided to go ahead with the plan anyway, buy at least 50 bicycles, paint them all white and leave them in the streets for Amsterdammers to use. The White Bicycle Plan was now in its infancy. Ironically, those who ultimately took the free bicycles were the police who confiscated them. The White Bicycle Plan violated the municipal law stating that bicycles in public space must be locked.

Luckily, the police returned the confiscated bikes and the inventive Provo group came up with an improvement. They equipped the bicycles with locks and painted the lock combinations on the bikes. But no matter how cunning Provo were, Schimmelpennink’s idea of making free bicycle sharing a municipal policy failed. He still had one last option: joining the Municipal Council and trying to push the agenda as a councilman. Schimmelpennink got elected, but yet again, the first-ever bike sharing failed as it was outvoted by the opposition.

Luud Schimmelpennink and his thoughts inspired community bicycle programs which later spread across Europe and beyond the ocean. Like many visionaries, Schimmelpennink is not credited enough for his ideas that eventually took roots and transformed urban transportation. But maybe it’s just the cost of having a really long name.