VIENNA (dpa) - Cheerful blue and pink bicycles have again become part of the city scene for the second time in three months.
The "Viennabikes" are owned by the city and available to the public at streetcorner racks. The principle is like a supermarket cart - one puts a two euro coin into a slot, and the bike is free for use. At the end of the ride, one returns the bike to any rack, chains it up and gets the two euros back.
Simple, convenient, and an ideal supplement to car or public transport, says Vienna Mayor Michael Haeupl.
There was only one problem when the scheme was first tried in May - hundreds of bikes promptly disappeared. The Viennese loved them so much they had to take them home. A political row resulted which left the city authorities licking their wounds, but insisting they would try again.
Carrot and stick methods were employed. Bike thieves were prosecuted, but that still didn't bring most of the bikes back. Then Viennabike organizer Michael Kuhn devised a scheme of gifts and competition prizes as an incentive.
Plans to repeat the project included elaborate precautions against a new crimewave.
Cyclists would have to identify themselves via mobile phone to get a code number unlocking the bike and another number would be issued making sure they locked it up again after four hours. After that there would be - at first polite - admonitions by SMS, and finally an ultimatum and prosecution.
This appeared foolproof, but critics said it was too complicated. So the scheme was initially relaunched this week without it.
The 1,200 Viennabikes distributed in racks around eight districts of the city are again to be had for the drop of a two-euro coin.
But this time, the organizers say, there are more cyclist patrols seeing that the riders do not take the bikes outside the prescribed districts, between the Danube Canal bordering the city centre to the east, and the Guertel road separating the inner from the outer districts in the west.
To avoid any impression of "enforcement", the patrols are dubbed "Info-Teams". They stress they are not vigilantes or "sheriffs". They simply inform riders of any infringement of the rules, and turn them back if they are outside the limits. Only the unrepentant are threatened with the police.
By inserting the coin and taking the bike, the user automatically enters into a "leasing contract" with Viennabike. The terms and penalties are set out on leaflets on the cycle racks and on the backs of the bikes.
One day after the relaunch, Kuhn heaved a sigh of relief. "This time it's a lot better." The "Info-teams" stopped 50 cyclists on the first day for riding outside the allowed areas. Ten bikes were confiscated. One man was caught taking a bike away on a train. There were a few other complaints to police resulting in fines of 50 euros.
"People know much better now how to deal with the Viennabikes, and why they are there", said Kuhn. "Misuse has declined, not least due to the presence of the Info-Teams."
The organizers hope that if things continue going smoothly, they will not have to use their scheme of code numbers and SMS messages at all.
Vienna has not been alone with its problems. In Copenhagen the system only worked with a system of fines, but is now running well. In the German state of Bavaria, the first operator who tried it went broke.
In Berne in Switzerland, users have to pay about 35 euros deposit. Otherwise it wouldn't work, say the organizers. When the scheme was first introduced 20 years ago, the bikes all vanished. One was later found as far away as New Zealand.