Electronically Controlled Cycle Parking A Valuable Component Of Bike And Ride?

Ghent Railway Station - A Case Study


It is generally accepted that in many countries the fear of having a bicycle stolen is a major deterrent to cycle use. As a result, where cycling still remains the most obvious and popular choice for short journeys despite high levels of theft, cyclists often respond by using bikes that are not attractive to thieves. This in turn can lead to other road safety problems as the result of poorly maintained machines posing a threat to the rider and other road users.

Various approaches to solving the problems of bicycle security are available. Some measures are taken by the cyclists themselves and others by local authorities and other service providers such as public transport operators. Apart from the use of bikes that are unattractive to thieves, cyclists often respond by using ever-stronger locks and attaching their bikes to a variety of immovable objects. Sadly, this usually means street furniture and all too often is at the expense of the safety and convenience of pedestrians and those with disabilities.

Whilst local authorities and service providers often do their best, the kinds of stands provided by many are not always user-friendly, especially when they become full. Despite being found all over Europe, the commonly employed bicycle rack that holds only the front wheel, and stores alternate bikes at a higher level, are perhaps amongst the worst offenders. These are not only difficult for those without the strength to easily lift their bikes into the rack, they also cause problems when one bike falls against another. In addition, they create particular problems as the result of closely packed bikes being caught by the cables and brake levers of those being lifted in or out. The particular difficulties of attaching the bike to the frame of the rack to prevent theft are another reason for the dislike of this type of stand amongst many users.

It should, therefore, come as no surprise to find that a number of cyclists respond by giving up the use of their bike. Fortunately others take a different approach by encouraging local authorities etc to provide the kind of secure parking that genuinely meets their needs. An example of one service provider's response may be taken from the experience of the Belgian rail operator SNCB/NMBS.

In the past, SNCB staff monitored cycle parking at its stations but this practice had to be abandoned due to the staff costs involved and the need to employ personnel more productively. Over time this led to the surroundings of many Belgian railway stations becoming unsafe from the point of view of cycle security. This in turn led passengers to ask for more secure cycle parking facilities.

In response to these requests a number of solutions were considered, including the option of automated systems. After further study and market research the product manufactured by the Belgian company PLS (Park and Locking Systems) was chosen as the most convenient and efficient system. As a result, in the past 12 to 24 months can be drawn from the 'Prestige' project recently announced by London Transport. This private finance initiative is reported to be worth £1.4 billion (2 bn Euro) and will be delivered by the TranSys consortium (EDS - advanced business systems and card management, Cubic Corporation - automated fare collection systems, ICL ­information technology and WS Atkins - technology based consultants). By making wide use of contactless smart cards for frequent travellers (but with the ability to accept magnetic-strip cards and iSque paper tickets), it is intended that this system will make it easier for passengers to use the London Transport network (6 million passenger journeys daily - 3.5 million by bus plus 2.5 million by underground from 250 stations). It is possible that, in the future, this project could form the basis for all integrated public transport through-ticketing across the country. Clearly the introduction of such a system could provide opportunities for many other forms of service delivery.

Cycle Parking and Public Transport

Poor cycle security is widely recognised as a deterrent to cycle use and fear of theft can result in poorly maintained bicycles creating a road safety problem for local authorities (1). Nevertheless bicycle use is seen as an important feeder to public transport (2). The provision of high quality, secure cycle parking can play an important role in encouraging modal transfer from car to bike as part of an integrated transport strategy. Within such a strategy, the use of electronically controlled cycle parking can not only meet the real and perceived needs of a sector of the market for cycle parking; it can also generate revenue to secure the provision and maintenance of such facilities. The self-funding of cycle parking facilities is seen as an increasingly important element of service provision and there is evidence that railway companies see this as a way of maintaining profitability (3).

Electronically Controlled Cycle Parking Systems

Although still in its infancy, the use of electronics to control and monitor the parking of bicycles may be thought of as a natural extension of existing technology to provide increased security. At present four different systems are known to be operating in Europe. Three of these permit use of communal bicycles (Rennes - Adshell, Rotterdam and Portsmouth - Dixon Bate). Such systems offer clear advantages over the traditional 'City-Bike' schemes which, whilst popular, suffer from problems of misuse and theft. The introduction of electronic control and monitoring of use and deposits (often taken against credit cards) offer clear advantages over the traditional projects.

So far these schemes have been confined to relatively small numbers of unique bikes linked to the projects themselves. However, the electronically controlled cycle parking offered for travellers' own bikes at an increasing number of Belgian railway stations (PLS Belgium) serves as a good example of the potential for such systems to be linked to public transport interchanges. This system permits an individual traveller's own bike to be secured in purpose-made stands which are wholly controlled by electronics and the use of an industry-standard contact smart card. Not all of the cycle parking provision at any site is met by electronic control. At present 10% of total provision appears to match customer demand. Experience has shown that all of the secure parking spaces are very quickly taken up. This, perhaps, is an indication that potential demand may be even greater. The manufacturer reports that early research by the rail company suggests that the users of the system are happy with the project. As a result over 2000 parking stands have been installed or ordered in the period May to December 1998. Clearly here is a market ripe for expansion.

The benefits of such a system may be summarised as follows:

  1. Added security (and peace of mind) for cyclists (in addition to each individual
    bike stand, access to storage compound can also be controlled by smart card);
  2. Secure parking can be provided at sites where the demand does not justify the employment of staff to provide security or other cycle-related services;
  3. Where compatible, the use of combined ticketing for travel and cycle parking speeds up service delivery;
  4. Electronic control permits monitoring of customer use (permits 'tailoring' of service provision for parking at transport interchanges and city-bike schemes based on actual, rather than perceived use);
  5. Electronic control also permits remote monitoring (by modem) of faults and, if appropriate, service level agreements for maintenance/repair;
  6. Capital costs compare favourably with locker systems offering similar security (Note - currently, some electronic parking systems have to be operated under cover);
  7. Revenue generation to off-set capital investment and fund up-grades as technology moves forward;
  8. Opportunities for long-term 'partnerships' between supplier and operators to reduce set-up capital costs.

Whole Life Costs

Taking as an example the equipment employed in Belgium, such a system could be installed for a cost of 400 - 500 Euro per bike parking space. Estimates of maintenance costs are not available, however, the simple yet effective parking mechanism is robustly built to exceed the life of ten-year contracts. Almost entirely constructed from steel, only the comparatively small elements which provide the electronic control and monitoring are not readily recyclable.


Public transport providers are increasingly moving towards the use of electronic ticketing to achieve improvements to service delivery and reductions in costs. The provision of complimentary and other services, through the medium of the smart card ticket, will bring both financial and transport modal shift benefits. Enhanced cycle parking security, through the employment of electronic control of parking systems, has the dual benefit of encouraging cycle use as a feeder to public transport (by removing the fears of some potential users) and raising funds to meet the cost of service provision.


  1. "Cycle Parking at Railway Stations: Principles of Best Practice", Alex Sully, Paper to Velo Borealis 1998;
  2. "Traffic, Economic and Planning Aspects of Bike and Ride in the Rhine and Ruhr Transport Authority", Hartmut Gijukits.
  3. "Cycle parking in the Netherlands", CROW 1997




Author: Alex Sully

The Smart Card Explosion

We take 'smart cards' for granted. A few years ago, before the introduction of credit cards, few of us would have imagined how commonplace they would soon become. Of course 'smart cards' come in different forms. Some have electronically-read magnetic strips or computer chips and are used for credit, banking and other monetary transactions. These are sometimes known as 'open' since they must be available for these transactions at a wide range of locations, sometimes across national borders (e.g. credit cards). However, because of the requirement that their use must be authorised, the cost of on-line confirmation means that their employment for low-cost services is often uneconomic.

Those cards whose use is confined to specific activities are known as 'closed' since their use is restricted (e.g. 'store' cards). These may, however, use similar operating systems for public telephone use, public transport ticketing, access controls or parking systems. Sometimes multiple uses are offered; for example combining car parking and telephone use. Other cards can also offer multiple uses through the inclusion of a cashless 'purse'. These permit payments to be made from sums credited to the card for day to day transactions.

'Sold' to the user on the basis of ease of payment or access to instant credit, smart cards give the issuing operator the ability to monitor use and, in the case of 'store cards', analyse customer purchasing patterns. When added to detailed information about clients and other demographic information, such use becomes an important marketing tool.

Contactless Smart Cards and Public Transport

Cards employing magnetic strips or chips are read electronically and have to be in contact with the reading equipment. So-called 'contactless' cards read by radio frequency do not require contact and, in the example of public transport, can provide particular benefits. For high volume operators in densely populated urban areas the ability to read contactless tickets in as little as 400 milliseconds means less delay for the operator and customer alike. These not only result in the expected economies of scale and attendant cost savings, they also provide many additional advantages. For example, electronic control of ticketing permits sales to be made through a wider range of outlets which can be remote from the bus or train station e.g. telephone sales or passenger operated ticket machines. It can easily offer immediate revenue transfer and, if desired, create the opportunity for the provision of all or part of the sales process by a third party. In addition, ticket fraud can be more tightly controlled and travel patterns more readily monitored. To provide a wider range of services it is possible to add contact chips to contactless cards. This is seen as desirable as the broader the range of services provided the greater the opportunity to reduce the costs of the operating system.

Many examples of electronic ticketing exist for both underground (Metro) and bus services. A measure of the importance being placed on contactless ticketing system the stations of Mechelen, Antwerp and Ghent have been equipped with this fully automated parking system,

The PLS Electronic Parking System

The system is activated by the used of an industry-standard chip card and comprises two basic components; the control unit/card reader and the bicycle stand. The control unit is mounted in a steel console and one console is used to control around twenty to thirty stands. It is worth noting that one control unit can control up to 100 stands but twenty to thirty is considered to be the optimum figure to keep delays at peak periods to a minimum.

The bicycle stand itself stand carries a unique bracket. This is specially shaped so that the front tube of the bike frame can be held securely within it. Damage to the frame (and the bike) is prevented by the use of a plastic cover. The bracket will accept more than 95% of the bikes in use today. Once the bike is in place, a rustproof steel pin is pushed home to lock the frame. The pin and, therefore the bike, cannot be withdrawn until released electronically by use of the chip card.                                .

The chip card is a pay-card. When the card is inserted into the reader the time of arrival is registered. When the bike is collected the equipment also registers the time of departure. The difference between the two determines the parking fee. The amount due is automatically deducted from the chip card. Whilst the card used in connection with this system currently provides only a single service, there is no practical reason why it should not be incorporated in another that provides ticketing on public transport or a wider range of services.


1. When the user inserts their card into the reader the system displays the validity of the card. Next it displays the operating instructions. The user can choose from four languages; Dutch, French, English, or German,

2. The system then assigns a vacant parking position. Once the bike has been placed in the stand it is secured by pushing home the locking pin. Each individual control unit offers only one parking space per card at anyone time, but many bikes may be parked by using the same card at different control units.

3. To help improve the stability of the parked bike, and reduce the space occupied, the front wheel sits at an angle of approximately 40 degrees in a shallow bracket fixed to the floor.

4. When the bike is needed again, the card is inserted into the reader. If there is sufficient money credited to the card is sufficient to allow full payment to be deducted, then the system will allow the pin to be withdrawn. If not, the bike remains locked until the card is re-charged.

5. The chip card is recharged by staff who are present on pre-advertised days. In some cases a local shop or newspaper kiosk may also provide this service.

Other Facilities

The nature of the system allows monitoring of all functions, This means that levels and duration of use may be determined. This helps match service delivery to customer needs. In the event that a card is lost then authorised staff may release a bike with a special card. If a bike should be removed by unauthorised use of a card, then the time of removal can be established to help in tracing the stolen bike. Monitoring lengths of stay can identify bikes left abandoned within the system. These can then be removed by use of the operator's card. Back-up at times of power loss is provided by a battery within the console. This can be charged either through the mains electric system or an optional solar panel.

Other Benefits

In addition to the fact that use of a large number of consoles reduces the time taken to remove bikes at peak periods, the opportunity to assign stands to any user means that maximum use of all the stands can be achieved at all times of the day. This can provide greater capacity for example, than lockers solely assigned to individual commuters. Equally, visitors to the city may use stands during weekends, thus allowing use beyond that which would be normal for assigned parking for use by commuters.

From the provider's point of view the fact that the system is fully automatic means there needs to be no staff costs involved. Since various supply and maintenance packages are available from the manufacturer it is possible to achieve regimes that relieve the provider of the service from all involvement from its day-to-day running.

Ghent Station

On an average weekday several thousand bikes can be found parked around the station at Ghent. In response to requests from passengers for improved facilities SNBC has installed 600 automated cycle parking stands. These have been placed in a covered area 97 metres by 11 metres, specially provided to house the parking. The stands are in four rows of 150. The space available is slightly in excess of the minimum required for such a layout of 85m x 10m, which contributes to the spacious feel.

The building is approximately 50 metres from the main entrance to the station and lies between it and a major area of car parking. Much of the roof is glazed and this creates a bright and airy feel to the parking area. The use of different colours for the steel columns which support the roof also add a pleasing note to the atmosphere and offer an additional reminder to users of where they left their bike.

To add to the security of the parking, entry to the building is also controlled by the same smart card that parks the bikes. Glazed steel automatic sliding doors at both ends allow for easy entry and exit when pushing a bicycle.

SNCB/NMBS Evaluation Of The Cycle Parking System

As stated earlier, the cycle parking system is in operation in three different Belgian cities. At the time of writing railway stations at several other cities are also programmed for similar schemes.

As is to be expected, in view of the investment necessary to create such projects, this parking system has been the subject of evaluation, both from the provider and customer's perspective. The results of SNBC's monitoring are summarised as follows:

  • Users need to be introduced to the system;
  • Once explained, the system is very user-friendly;
  • No complaints have been received from the users;
  • The three parking sites are all fully occupied;
  • The parking areas are cleaner and more user-friendly;
  • There have been no technical breakdowns in the system;
  • The level of vandalism is negligible;
  • No thefts have been reported.


Anecdotal evidence from the manufacturers suggests that initially customers were unsure about the need for apparently complex systems such as this. However once familiar with its operation, customers are very happy with both it and the security it provides. To introduce users to the system a range of activities have been undertaken to both publicise the facility and help them learn how to use the equipment. This has included open days, instruction manuals and signposting etc. The only technical breakdowns, which have occurred during the introduction of the project, have been as the result the works of others e.g. power cuts due to construction works etc" .

Sadly, it is to be expected that in most societies that the kind of equipment provided would be subject to vandalism. Whilst the equipment employed is very robust and itself a deterrent to tampering, some individuals have still felt it necessary to try. Fortunately, experience shows that this is minimal and confined to areas where additional security measures had been already incorporated. Frustrated would-be vandals soon learn that their actions are fruitless and then leave the equipment alone.

The author should be contacted directly for details of typical costs for installation, management and maintenance. For use, it may be taken as a guide that indications are that cyclists across Europe are willing to pay between 7.5 and 10 Euro per month for such services.


In a paper on the principles of best practice for cycle parking to the Velo Borealis Conference held in Trondheim in 1998 the author suggested that good cycle parking should be:

1. Visible
2. Accessible
3. Secure
4. Covered
5. Affordable
6. Easy to use, well managed and maintained.
7. In a position of prominence and advantage.
8. Attractive
9. Coherent                             .
10. Able to maximise the involvement of other 'partners' and funding sources
11. Linked to other needs of cyclists.
12. Part of a 'Cycling Culture'

When compared against these principles, the electronically controlled cycle parking at Ghent station scores very highly. It is easy to find, access is equally easy and its security is proven. Bikes left all day are covered from the effects of the weather and the fact that the stands are full is testimony to the fact that customers are happy to pay the fee. The equipment is easy to use and the sites have proved to be well managed and maintained. Being close to the station entrance and closer than some car parking, the importance attached to cycling is recognised. The author has insufficient experience to comment on the links to the cycle network but it is clear that this facility ably meets the needs of a sector of the cycle parking market and the level of cycling shown by the number of cycles parked at the station would indicate that Ghent is already a 'cycling city'.

Any facility that encourages people to cycle as a part of a longer journey by successfully removing the fear of theft is to be applauded. As ticketing of public transport moves towards the use of smart cards for service delivery the use of such cards to provide a wider range of services is to be expected. So long as cycle theft can be expected to continue, the electronic control of cycle parking has, therefore, a valuable role to play in the promotion of bike and ride.

Perhaps the most telling statement can be taken from the summary of SNCB's evaluation "No thefts have been reported", How many other operators and manufacturers can make that proud boast and how better to encourage people to leave their cars behind in the certain knowledge that their bicycle will be there when they get back after their journey?


The author would like to express his gratitude to Mr Van Buggenhout of SNCB/NMBS and Messers Pattyn and Loveniers of PLS Belgium for their kind help in the preparation of this paper.