Using the Antwerp Bike Share System

I cycled in another country again! On a recent visit to Antwerp, Belgium, I used the local completely automated bike share system. It was the first time I ever used such a system and it was a great experience.

We had picture postcard weather in Antwerp. What you cannot see, however, is that the temperatures were below freezing point and the ice cold fierce east wind blew right through you.

Antwerp is very close to the Netherlands, but when it comes to cycling it is rather different. Although people cycle more upright and more for everyday purposes than in many other countries, the infrastructure is on a totally different level. In fact, I was recently invited to come and visit Antwerp to see the cycling infrastructure and film it and write about it, because it could do with some attention and an upgrade. I will take up that invitation, but by chance I already did visit the city with my partner for a long weekend. We had not planned to cycle, but with that invitation in mind and being in a hotel that was a bit further away from everything we decided to test the Antwerp shared bike system.

The starting point of the ride in the video. The Velo-Station at the bank of the river Scheldt near the city centre. (Steenplein, Velo 059 – Het Steen)
I am not very technically interested in bicycles. I only noticed on their website that it said the bicycles do not have a chain drive. And sure enough, I could have seen that on this picture I took, or even noticed it while riding, but I didn’t.

The Shared Bicycle System in Antwerp is simply called “Velo”. And now that I have I can’t believe I never used it before! It is as simple as the name suggests to register on the website for a day or a week pass. As a temporary visitor an annual subscription card is usually too much. That is why we opted for the 10-euro week pass, that we could use on our four-day visit. We used our smart phone to go to the website (with roaming costs abolished in the EU that is easy and convenient nowadays), we subscribed and we instantly received a user code and password by mail. With these codes we could immediately take a bike at any one of the 153 bicycle stations of which one was right next to the hotel. In the city centre they are hardly ever more than 400 metres away from any given location. The usual system applies here too; the first 30 minutes are free, after that you pay 50 cents for the fist hour and then the costs increase rapidly. You cannot lock the bicycles, so you just cycle to the station nearest to your destination and put it back. You get another one for the return journey. We were able to keep all our rides under 30 minutes. Which was also due to the extreme cold. Having to wear two coats at the same time to keep a bit warm is no fun!

The subscription prices for the Antwerp Velo system are very friendly.

One of the rides was from the city centre (after a visit to the historic cathedral) alongside the river Scheldt, north, to the Red Star Line Museum. We decided to film that ride, both. So I had footage from the same ride from two different cameras. I combined these images, so you can even see yours truly in this video.

No big complaints about this type of infrastructure. There is space for a car to wait out of the way of traffic on the main road. All drivers were carefull to keep the path free and to give priority. This part is a bit on the narrow side for two-way bicycle traffic, and it has concrete tiles, but other than that it was quite alright.
The reconstructed part was even better. Wider and a smoother surface of red asphalt. The white tracks are there because the temperature was below zero. Note the good size of the waiting space for turning cycling traffic at the light.

The infrastructure on this ride is quite good. It is a two-way cycle path following the river bank on the water side. There are but a few crossings, usually entries to a parking lot. And this path has priority over all those entrances. The path in the city centre has a concrete tiles surface, which is a bit old-fashioned even in Belgium. The reconstructed part in the north has very smooth red asphalt. There the path has been widened too. This level of quality is certainly not common everywhere in Antwerp. In our ride to the hotel we encountered a very different type of infrastructure. Routes are not very well connected. Especially around larger roads and building sites cycle routes tend to wind from one side of the road to the other and that makes finding your way far from intuitive.

This main road was compeletely reconstruced in recent years. It got a brand new separate tram line at the expense of two motor traffic lanes. The cycleway was widened and got a smooth surface of red asphalt.
Google StreetView shows the situation in 2014. Four lanes for motor traffic and a much narrower cycleway with concrete tiles. The street even had a parking lane back then.

But this ride was quite nice. It shows Antwerp is changing rapidly. Especially in the area towards the end of the video, called “Het Eilandje” (the small island). This former port area is being reconstructed into a high-end residential area. The area has cycleways on all the bigger streets, with a surface of nice smooth asphalt. All the smaller residential streets have a speed limit of 30km/h (18mph). That is a system that is very similar to the Dutch way of designing residential areas. Another thing the Belgians share with the Dutch is the moped problem. As you can see in the video mopeds use the cycleways in Antwerp too, but – lucky for them – their numbers are much lower.

Automated shared bicycle systems require a lot of maintenance. Some places get more bicycles than others, such as here at the Antwerp City Museum (MAS). Bicycles have to be redistributed all the time. That is what you see on these two pictures.
A complete new set of cleaned bicycles was placed at this station. The few bicycles that were present here were taken away by this man to be examined, cleaned and then relocated to somewhere else.

All in all, this was a nice first impression of Antwerp cycling. I will visit Antwerp again this spring and film a more complete and more realistic image of cycling in that city.

The city of Antwerp kept a number of historic cranes in the former port area. They are very photogenic. I think it is also clear from this picture how cold it was, even more so after this sunset!

Map of our short ride in Antwerp.

Video of our short ride in Antwerp.

8 thoughts on “Using the Antwerp Bike Share System

  1. I found there is today very little difference in bicycling infrastructure in the Flemish region of Belgium region compared to The Netherlands. In fact in some parts it is more developed, with new. modern and beautiful cycling bridges, excellent quality separated bicycle lanes, bicycle rest stops and ingenious bicycle racks for parking. that easily rival anything anywhere else.

    One main difference I see is The Netherlands is much more organized in the way the country is laid out. The thing I can not figure out is why the social culture changes radically the moment you cross the border. My guess is it is the time spent at school “culturalizes” the citizens. Other than that there should be no reason why one culture so historically intertwined is so different.

    1. If you compare newly-built infrastructure in Antwerp to Dutch ones, I would agree that the quality looks to be more or less the same, especially with the red-asphalt paving. But one difference I notice is that even the newly-built cycle lanes in Antwerp are flush with the sidewalk, whereas in the Netherlands the bicycle path is usually a few cm’s lower in elevation. Such a detail might seem trivial, but it makes the separation of the two types of infrastructure clearer. Perhaps in practice this also reduces the level of intrusion of one user type into the other as no one would really want to be walking or biking on the sloped or curbed interface. If you compare other details such as intersection treatments, lane markings and placement of bicycle signals, etc. then you start to notice that the Dutch infrastructure is better in quality. The availability of cycle lanes is also quite sporadic in Antwerp (and Ghent). Sometimes you have nothing for bikes on major arterial roads, or only painted lanes that may/may not give up seemingly randomly. They are trying to improve things in the larger Belgian cities, but there’s still quite a long way to go. Maybe Mark will enlighten us in the coming weeks, but in the many times I’ve visited Antwerp and Ghent, I have never encountered bicycle rush hour anywhere like you have in all the larger Dutch towns and cities, and also Copenhagen. I’ve also not heard of such a thing existing in Belgium.

      I think some of the major differences in social culture are largely driven by the government policies which also includes a lot of influence from Franco-Wallonian culture. This would certainly explain their messy spacial and urban planning. Furthermore, the Flemish were historically Catholic, whereas most of the Dutch were Protestant. In the Netherlands you can also see a difference as the Catholic provinces have celebrations like Carnival and the Catholic Dutch are considered more laid back. The mentality about food between Dutch and Flemish are also very different; the latter have more French influence for one, and also more appreciation for “good” food. Most of my Dutch colleagues just eat/make things that are cheap, easy and quick to eat. If it’s a bit difficult to eat for them, like Spaghetti, they just slice everything into little pieces. My Belgian colleagues absolutely scoff about that. The Dutch have quite a notorious reputation for being stingy about spending money, especially when it comes to food.

  2. I regularly use the bikeshare system in Washington, D.C., Capital Bikeshare. For longer trips, one way to circumvent the 30-minute limit is to dock the bike at an intermediate station and immediately un-dock the bike to continue on your way, assuming you do not get dock blocked at the chosen intermediate station.

    Washington is hosting a trial of fourth generation bikeshare. I have not used the system, but I am affected because its biggest problem is poor etiquette on where bikes are left. People often leave bikes in the middle of sidewalks, which is an accessibility issue for wheelchair users and people pushing baby carriages.

  3. It is interesting to see that Antwerp has a Third Generation bikeshare system, like the one in New York City. Where I live in Hamilton, Ontario, we are about to celebrate the third anniversary of our Fourth Generation system.

    The big difference is that in 4th Gen, a GPS unit and all the technology is on the bike. So the system generates a map of each person’s ride and (very useful!) one can leave the bike anywhere. No dock blocking! See:

    For the uninitiated, “dock blocking” is when one goes to return a 3rd Gen bike, only to find that all the slots in the bike station are full. This requires one to go in search of a station with an empty slot. Quite a nuisance, and apt to make someone late to wherever he was going.

    1. I hope that this 4th Generation comes to NYC one day! I hate that we are behind our northern neighbors!

    2. 4th generation bike sharing aren’t that perfect either. Bikes can and are dumped anywhere where there are potential customers. These bicycles fill up the bike racks meant for all kind of cyclist and not just for the shared bike services. That’s why they’re already strictly regulated here in the Netherlands in cities like Rotterdam and Amsterdam. 3rd generation is better although dock blocks are annoying. That’s why formulas like the lease bike of Snappfiets or the 2nd gen OV-fiets still have a right to exist.

  4. The reconstructed part does look very nice. Looking forward to the more realistic view you mentioned!

  5. I work in New York City where the bike ride share program, Citibike, has been around now for several years. I learned a lot about the similarities between the bike programs thanks to your detailed explanation. I’m also glad to know that in Antwerp there is a 30 minute limit before fees are assessed, since this has been one of the most common complaints of those who use our Citibike system. Our fees, however, are substantially more then they are in Antwerp. When you come to New York to do a story on our biking in the big apple, be sure to look me up!

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