Renting a bicycle from a locker

Billet en français

Thanks to the national OV-Fiets system, which is the public-transport shared bicycle system, I can get to places where I want to film for this blog. When I had to go to a rather remote place recently, the nearest station was the tiny station of Vierlingsbeek. That village is on the border with Germany in the extreme east of the province of North-Brabant. Even at such a small station there are 4 shared bicycles for hire from a locker that you can get access to in a very easy way. In this post I will show you how.

Four lockers in this row contain a public-transport rental bicycle. One of the lockers has the control panel from which you can rent the bicycles.
The bicycles are all somewhat identical and that means my contraption to attach the 360 camera can be placed on the handlebars. This was on the cycle bridge in Beek.

Almost all locations, further than around 20 kilometres from ’s-Hertogenbosch or Utrecht, that I write about in my posts, were reached on an OV-Fiets. With the exception of a few very long rides (such as the ones to Belgium last year and the year before) for which I brought my own bicycle in the train – off peak hours. Most of the time it is not possible or desired to bring your own bicycle into the trains. Some things are simply not scalable. Over 50% of the Dutch train travellers arrive to the main train stations by bicycle (the national average is 44%) which is much more than in any other country in the world. The whole train system would collapse if people would be allowed to bring bicycles with them on the train. Sometimes people ask me why I don’t use a folding bicycle, but that is not for me. I wouldn’t want to carry that around everywhere and I certainly wouldn’t want to be that person who stains other people’s clothes with the bike chain or already -illegally- unfolds the bicycle in the train before it even arrives. To avoid nuisances like that the Dutch developed alternatives. The large bicycle parking facilities to park a bicycle, which most people use at the station of origin, or this system of rental bicycles that most people use at the destination side of their trip. I use the OV-Fiets system bicycles so often that they almost feel like my own. I even attach my camera to the handlebars when necessary. The system has grown exponentially in recent years. In 2019, a total of 5.2 million rides were made on an OV-Fiets, rented from one of the 300 locations. That was one million more than in 2018 or an increase of well over 23%. In 2017 there had already been an increase of 33%. Many of the 20,500 bicycles currently in use were refurbished.

The station of Vierlingsbeek is not much more than a stop. The former railway building was demolished in 2004. The operator on the Maasline is Arriva.
The website and app of the railways shows how many bicycles are still left to rent in real time. When I made this screen shot one bicycle was rented out (or maybe broken, but that is less likely).

Vierlingsbeek is on the Railway line Nijmegen – Venlo parallel to the river Maas (Meuse) and is not serviced by the Dutch national railways NS trains but by a local provider called Arriva. Even so, the NS do operate an OV-Fiets system at this station. Vierlingsbeek is a very small station. On an average working day about 500 people use it, according to this report about smaller stations from 2018. That is why the 4 bicycles in a locker are sufficient as a service to some of these travellers. I was a bit apprehensive about that low number (you don’t want to be left on a tiny station with nowhere to go but on foot), but fortunately there is an app for your phone that shows how many bicycles are still available in real time. In this case, on a drizzly day last October, all 4 bicycles were still available when I arrived at the station.

The green light on the locker indicates that a bicycle is available for renting inside this particular locker.
All you have to do is insert your Public Transport Card and you can rent a bicycle. (Provided you have a subscription on that card.)

I’ve shown you how the system works in a covered – but unmanned – bicycle parking facility (in Culemborg) the system is even more simple for the lockers. All you have to do is insert your public transport chip card. That informs the system whether you have a subscription. I had to push only one button. When I pressed “YES” to answer the one word question “do you want to rent a bicycle?” which in Dutch is “Halen?” or “Pick up?” and already one of the lockers popped open. That was sooner than even I expected. In the past you had to enter a pin code, but that is no longer necessary. The locker contains an unlocked bicycle that you simply take out. Don’t take as much time as I did, the locker starts to beep so you won’t forget to lock it again. The return is as easy, although you have to answer one question more. First you say “NO” to inform the system that you are not renting but instead returning a bicycle. (Again just one word “Return?” The next question is then “Is the bicycle in good shape?” I answered yes, which means someone else could then rent it after me. When you answer “NO” the bicycle is taken out of the system until it is checked by a person. The price for the system all over the country is very reasonable, certainly compared to other systems. You can rent a bicycle for 24 hours for €3.85. And that same amount for the next 24 hours. (Further and detailed information in English about how the system works.)

There are two lines that can show texts but someone had damaged the first line which made that unreadable so I had to guess here and there what the machine meant exactly.
In the locker is a standard Dutch OV-Fiets with back pedal brakes.

There is only one catch. The system can only be activated for people with a Public Transport chip card to their name and the card needs to be linked to a Dutch bank account. That way the supplier can deduct the amount due from that account. This is all well and good for people residing in the Netherlands, who can have a Dutch bank account, but what about visitors? This system doesn’t work for foreign bank accounts. You would expect that by now they could do this for credit card holders too, but that is still not possible with the public transport chip card. So is it not possbile to get an OV-Fiets as a non-Dutch bank account holder? The short answer is “no you can’t”, but fortunately there is an exception, in – as could be expected – the cycling city of Utrecht. THE UTRECHT REGION PASS NO LONGER EXISTS!

One you have taken out the bicycle and closed the locker again the light changes to red. No bicycle available. This also happens when the bicycle inside is reported broken.

Utrecht offers a tourist visitor card, the Utrecht Region Pass. This card offers pay-as-you-go access to museums and other attractions in Utrecht, but also works as a full fledged public transport card – all over the Netherlands – including the right to rent an OV-Fiets! You need to order this card on the internet, well ahead of your visit, and you need to pick it up and return it somewhere in Utrecht (or at one address in Amsterdam). You rent this card for which you have to pay a fee and there is a deposit. All this means it isn’t an easy option, but it is the only work-around for  people without a Dutch bank account that I know of. But if you’re in the country for longer and you plan to visit multiple locations where you would want to cycle, you can do it like the Dutch!

In this video I show you how easy it is
to rent a bicycle from a locker.

A story about the OV-fiets rental system in English from an Amsterdam expat perspective (the figures are already outdated).

6 thoughts on “Renting a bicycle from a locker

  1. In 2019 I ordered a personal OV chipkaart for my upcoming vacation in The Hague. I had the card sent to Germany (where I live). With the card in my posession I called the NS customer service who can link the card to an IBAN bank account. Once the account had been verified by a 1ct deduction I could use the chipkaart to rent the OV fiets.

    If you want to do so, plan ahead for some time. The first ordered card got lost in the mail and I had to have it invalidated (actually it was stuck in customs and arrived weeks later). The second card arrived in a timely fashion, but the verification will take between two and six weeks.

    I wish the process was a bit easier because as a tourist having access to the OV fiets is incredibly useful and much cheaper than other rental bikes.

    Theoretically the free NS flex abo should enable access to the OV fiets, too. I’d love to read if (and how) it’s possible to get it with a payment option other than iDEAL.

  2. I think there might be some very good reasons for why the OVfiets hire/payment system is like it is, specifically, not available via a credit card only:
    1. NS and/or the NL is subsidising the hire cost of bikes, quite significantly I believe if you compare the cost of hiring a non OVfiets at a train station, therefore they understandably want the benefits to flow only to NS customers and NL taxpayers. I also believe it is possible to hire 2 bikes on a single card, thus “outsiders” aren’t totally excluded.
    2. Would it scale up? is the obvious question. There is a finite amount of space to house the bikes at train stations, and the budget for the system is always going to be limited to what NS can “afford” against their other priorities. Increasing supply to just be ahead of demand is sound economic management.
    3. OVfiets is currently the only “bike share” system in the world that makes sense to have in a country with true “mass cycling”, and every other type of bike share system in the world is hardly what I’d call successful in comparison; and none of them have led to anything like mass cycling in their home countries despite running for over a decade.

    So I believe this is a case of understanding from a public transport operator’s position what a useful adjunct OV fiets is to the phenomenon that is the Dutch public transport + private bike combined travel mode, and being careful what you wish for.

  3. Abellio attempted to deliver a UK version of OV-Fiets but in a clumsier form, with no great buy-in from the station staff in many of the places equipped.

    To hire a bike you had to use a staffed ticket counter, have your card swiped, and then get the key to unlock the bike, and get the bike back (usually) when the station was staffed. Some bikes were clearly being hired/located for leisure, rather than the commuter/utility market.

    Most OV-Fiets are, from what I’ve seen, a standard utility bike with a step-through frame – experience from the 1980’s bike hire operating in Luxembourg makes it clear that running a branded and consistent bike hire operation with a random bundle of refurbished bikes is not a practical option (spares etc).

    1. I live in the UK and got a Bunq account for exactly this reason! The trouble is that you can only get the OV-Chipkaart sent to the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Luxembourg. I had to open a forwarding address service in Germany in order to get the receive the card.

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