Close to 2,000 PBS systems are operational around the world, providing flexible mobility as users can pick up and drop off bicycles at any location in the network. Combining a centuries-old mode of transport with modern technology that provides easy access via smart card and smartphone apps, PBS is benefiting millions while bolstering the transition to low-carbon transportation systems. This approach offers significant promise for India.

India has had a long tradition of cycling. In the 1920s and 1930s, cycles started to appear in the Indian urban landscape as a modern mode of transportation (Joshi and Joseph 2015). However, with rapid motorization in the recent decades, in addition to the economic liberalization in the 1990s, that made two-wheelers in particular, and cars, more accessible with increasing incomes, the national share of cycling as a mode of transportation started declining. Cyclists started disappearing, and over time became invisible in the Indian urban mobility landscape. With the advent of motorization, many cities went through similar processes that marginalized cycling. However, in India, the linkage of cycling with poverty was a distinctive feature. The social stigma of “a poor man’s mode of transport” attached to cycling made it much more difficult for cycling to thrive despite the long history of bicycle usage in India. Despite these challenges, with increasing urbanization and the need to improve accessibility for all in India’s growing cities, PBS schemes provide a valuable low-carbon transport option that could be scaled up.

Bicycles offer a cheap and sustainable way for citizens to take short trips and access mass transit bus and metro systems from their homes. Yet, in recent decades, the spike in urbanization and cars has not been accompanied by a corresponding increase in the use of bicycles. In contrast, the national mode share (2007) for bicycles decreased to an average of 11 percent from nearly 30 percent in 1994 (Ministry of Urban Development, India 2007). According to a 2010 study, the mode share of cycling was found to be 13–21 percent in most of the medium (1–3 million) and large cities (3–5 million), 7–15 percent in very large cities (population above 5 million), and 7–10 percent in megacities (TERI 2014).

Since 2006, a National Urban Transport Policy that focused on “moving people rather than vehicles” has sought to reverse this trend by encouraging cities to adopt initiatives and projects to promote walking and cycling. Owing to this, many Indian cities piloted PBS systems to improve the cycling mode share. Globally, PBS systems have been around since 1965, when the first PBS system was introduced in Amsterdam. Since then, PBS systems have seen continuous technological innovations. Indian PBS systems were not influenced by global markets until 2006. The systems launched after 2006 used the technologies that were then current in the PBS market. However, initial attempts, including by Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore, were based on the rental model, and operations stalled within a few months of the launch because they proved to be economically unviable. These systems were completely private, the only support from the government being the provision of land/space to operate in.

In 2017, three cities—Mysuru (formerly Mysore), Bhopal, and Pune—introduced the country’s first PBS systems, which were relatively more successful than the previous attempts. These cities developed business, financial, and operational models using public-private partnerships, deployed smart technology, and introduced incentives for quality service. As India’s first PBS schemes that continue to operate today, they have important lessons to offer.

Although each scheme is different, they share some common factors, such as effective use of technology, adoption of basic principles of PBS, and public sector support, among others. The pilot cities have faced challenges in maintaining, sustaining, and expanding these systems. Hence, they offer important lessons to other cities.