Bratislava Old Town was given its first biely bicykel ('white bike', a free, public-use bicycle) on July 18. The initiators of the experiment called it a test to determine whether a more expansive programme of free public transport, similar to those found in some western cities, could be developed in the Slovak capital.
The idea behind the white bike scheme is to provide bicycles that any member of the public can use to get around, with the last user leaving the vehicle in a suitable condition and location for others to follow suit.
"In principle, this is like a public test of our morality," said Old Town spokesman Milan Vajda. "We'll see if we can have public bicycles without them being stolen. In Bratislava, and in Slovakia in general, if something is not locked up there is a high probability of it being stolen."
The bike was last seen by Miroslav Koziel, one of two locals who came up with the white bike proposal, on July 19, the day after it was left on the city streets. "We haven't seen it since then," he said July 25. "But I'm optimistic that people will behave properly."
But even the potential disappearance of the white bike may not see the plan aborted. While the privately-owned Markíza TV station reported that the white bike programme would be abandoned if the bicycle was stolen within a week, organisers told The Slovak Spectator that this was not true. More bikes will hit the streets, they said, and the experimental project will be pushed forward with help from the Old Town, which has pledged to install 64 bike racks around the city centre, and has promised to create bike paths on city roads.
The Old Town has also said it would provide more bikes to compliment the seven which private citizens and local firms have already donated to the cause since the white bike plan was unveiled in mid-July. "We just have to paint the seven new bikes," Koziel said. "And then we'll have them out on the street."
The first bike was donated by the Dutch Embassy in Bratislava. Dutch Ambassador to Slovakia Henk Soeters said that his native country had begun a similar free-bike system in large cities as early as the late 1960's as a way of dealing with oil shortages, pollution and increasing traffic.
"We have had success with similar systems in our country, and the white bike can provide a clean alternative to cars in Bratislava as well," he said. "But it's a difficult project. It will only be successful if those who use the white bike respect the rules of the game. When you play hockey but use football rules, for example, it will certainly end in disaster."
To help riders follow the rules, the original white bike has a list of guidelines painted on it. For example, said Koziel, the bikes are not to leave the 'white zone', an area in the Old Town bordered by the Staré Mesto, Poštová and Štúrova Streets in the west, north and east, and the Danube River in the south.
Another rule, said Ambassador Soeters: "Don't throw it in the water."
Asked whether they thought the bikes would be stolen, all involved said they were optimistic that the plan would prove a success.
"You always have to optimistic," Soeters said. "Think positive, that's what I've been told. And if the bike is stolen, try to focus on the positive. It's only one bike."
30. Jul 2001 at 0:00 | Chris Togneri