A Grassroots, Volunteer-Run Bike Sharing Model

A global bike-sharing movement that lets you pay whatever you like and borrow bikes for however long you like.

by Nicole Winchell, January 23, 2018

BikeSurf is a global volunteer run bike-sharing movement that lets you pay whatever you like and borrow bikes for however long you like. Present in over 8 countries, the movement is completely volunteer run and anyone can set up a BikeSurf program in their city. Graham Pope, the initiator of the movement, tells us what sets BikeSurf apart from corporate bike-sharing schemes and shares his insights surrounding the future of the sharing economy.

Tell us a little about BikeSurf, where did the idea come from and how did it get started?

On moving to Berlin in 2011, I felt lost without a bike and found that bike rental was expensive, considering all I needed was a very simple bike. I looked around and saw many half-dead bikes that, given a little repair, would be suitable for me in the short term. I had worked as volunteer in the bike kitchen/ self-repair workshop in Dublin called Rothar. One year later, I was encouraged by others to start a rudimentary website with a booking system for the original three bikes. I was inspired by the numerous other sharing initiatives in Berlin, but particularly my experience with CouchSurfing. What started off as a type of social experiment (would users bring back the bikes if they were just held by the honour principle?), grew as new bikes and volunteers people joined the project. Developing a system that allowed everyone, not just those who can afford it, to enjoy cycling in a relatively safe city, has always been the central goal.

Graham from BikeSurf repairing bikes on the street

Graham Pope and Hasan Ozgur during a BikeSurf repair party, taken by Ryan Walsh

What differentiates BikeSurf from other bike sharing initiatives like City Bikes, etc?

There are many differences between a grassroots, volunteer-run bike sharing model and other city-sponsored/ company-sponsored bike rental (not sharing in the true sense) schemes.

  • Our users are not obligated to pay for the bikes they borrow, but asked to pay whatever they can afford. Users are asked to question what the value of a bike is and whether they wish to support the growth of such a project. We consider this a very important question in the age of capitalism, where everything costs what the market is prepared to pay, which leads to people feeling excluded from society.
  • We do not ask for any deposit, so we rely on our users to be trustworthy and respectful of the bikes.
  • Without this emphasis on paperwork and money, the social aspect becomes very apparent. Our users and team members get a thrill out of using the project: obtaining a bike is the materialistic transaction but showing that such an idealistic project can be successful brings hope and joy to the team and the users.
  • Our bikes are sourced from our supporters. This means that they are usually older bikes and of various types. Users get to choose a bike that best suits their style, which allows them to get more emotionally invested in the experience and feel less like a tourist in the city. Using older bikes means that we are a greener solution than buying new custom-built rental bikes.
  • Users can borrow bikes for up to a month, which puts them under less time pressure of having to return the bike within a certain number of minutes. Why suddenly stop when you are having fun cycling about a city?
  • We are volunteers and hence motivated by the desire to provide bikes to those who would otherwise go without. There is a simple joy in trying something new and which gives a glimpse at a post-capitalistic world.

What has been your social impact to date?

This is quite difficult to assess, as I believe that our biggest contribution to date has been to inspire people to think differently about the value to things. As this positive influence is, by nature, intangible, I will provide some of the more tangible statistics of our direct impact.

  • Approximately 3500 users (average borrow duration of 5 days) to date in Berlin, who have enjoyed cycling when they might not have otherwise been able to do so: social inclusion.
  • Users have generally been very respectfully behaved and enthusiastic - the trust-based system has been proven to work
  • The number of BikeSurf cities has increased to 12 cities worldwide

BikeSurf during the bike fair VELO in Berlin 2014 - taken by Cyprien Leduc

BikeSurf during the bike fair VELO in Berlin 2014, taken by Cyprien Leduc

Today BikeSurf is active in 8 countries - what’s planned for 2018 and beyond?

Our focus this year is to continue to develop the new web platform that was launched on the 1st of January. We do this to help increase the number of cities who wish to join the network, with the ultimate aim that the project becomes recognised all over the world. We are attempting to unite all other similar bike sharing initiatives all across the world, so that we can all exist on the one platform and improve the service we all provide.

The project can be likened to a bicycle wheel, where the web platform acts as the hub to all the spokes (cities). There is no central authority and all the cities are independent of each other, but can help each other out when needed. With this model, each city can contribute to the improvement of a single web platform instead of multiple inferior ones.

On a more local level I would love to create a “bike kitchen” in Berlin, where we could repair the bikes, help the public to fix their own bikes and to act as a headquarters for the BikeSurfBerlin team.


In your opinion, where is the future of the collaborative/sharing economy headed?

Tough question. There currently exists two models of sharing, which I describe as “real sharing” and “peer-to-peer renting models” - think CouchSurfing versus AirBnB.

As technology makes it easier for us to either share or earn money from our excess resources, there is a decision for each individual to be made. The question is how best to maximise one’s happiness: making more money or sharing our excess to enrich other people’s lives? This “real sharing“ is what I envisage as a positive post-capitalistic world. The current challenge is to develop sustainable systems that allow objects to bring people together instead of dividing them.

However, as Zizek has stated for some it is “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”. I see the real sharing economy as a way to bring about revolutionary social change, with less reliance of monetary systems and the hegemony of corporate-run states.

To bring back such a dramatic change we have to prove that the world is ready. We do this by providing alternatives to the basic needs currently catered to by capitalistic businesses. These sharing initiatives would provide a product of similar quality, but with a focus on community participation - “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”. Once people get to think about the advantages of such sharing models, they will be inspired to seek out and use other sharing systems.

So what services should be prioritized? I would argue that sharing projects should initially focus on the absolute basic needs. This has been bourne out already, with successful sharing initiatives such as CouchSurfing (accommodation and cultural exchange), LInux (open source operating software), Foodsharing (organised food saving), Freifunk (WiFi available to all) and Wikipedia (peer reviewing so that everyone can have access to the world’s information). A bicycle is the next logical step. As a clean, cheap and efficient mode of transport, it allows everyone to cross cities and enjoy the experience of interacting more with their surroundings.


BikeSurf is a nonprofit and completely volunteer run - what advice do you have for other organizations who are mainly volunteer led?

The major barrier to sustaining such a project is maintaining enthusiasm for the project. As human we tend to habituate to things rather quickly. What was once a thrilling adventure becomes more mundane with time. This goes both for our users and team members. As a result, keeping the buzz alive means organising frequent team meetings and public events to showcase the progress of the project.

bikesurf berlin

Another important point is to decentralise the hierarchy of the team, so that the project is not reliant on one person and everyone feels they have a voice. In this way the project will be more sustainable and the team members will feel more empowered and hence commited.

Funding is always an issue. In nearly every project there are some expenses to be met. Being transparent and direct with your supporters to engender their trust is helpful in fundraising.

How can people get involved to support the BikeSurf movement?

The new open-source platform allows everyone to set up their own BikeSurf city with the click of a button. We will help with any advice they may need and also some starting capital to buy the basics.

In any of the already existing BikeSurf cities, you can simply join the team and help out with bike repairs, social media, logistics, web platform development or simply by lending your enthusiasm and feedback to the project.

We are always happy when people help us to promote the bike sharing philosophy through word-of-mouth or social media.

We also accept financial donations and rely on our community to donate their old bikes to the cause.

This project belongs to the whole community and we welcome all suggestions and support in making it the best possible experience for everyone.