In the 1960s, Luud Schimmelpennink devised the ‘white bike’ plan to counter the rise of pollution and cars. His invention has revolutionised public transport all over the world – so why has his cycle-loving home city never embraced it?
‘It’s strange and unreasonable that Amsterdam doesn’t have a proper bike-sharing system,’ says Luud Schimmelpennink, who devised the first ever scheme. Take an old bicycle. Paint it white. Leave it anywhere in the city. Tell people to use it. This was the first urban bike-sharing concept in history. Launched in Amsterdam in the 1960s, it was called the Witte Fietsenplan (the “white bicycle plan”). And it was not a great success. In fact, the plan was just another wild initiative by which Provo, an infamous group of Dutch anarchist activists, wanted to provoke the establishment and change society. But eventually the idea would revolutionise public transport across the world. Nowadays, hundreds of cities have bike-sharing systems, and the phenomenon is still growing. The original idea was floated on a summer’s day in 1965 as Provo’s answer to the perceived threats of air pollution and consumerism. In the middle of Amsterdam, the activists painted a small number of used bikes white, and issued a pamphlet stating that “the white bike symbolises simplicity and hygiene as opposed to the gaudiness and filth of the authoritarian car”. The white bicycles were left unlocked around the city, to be used by anyone in need of transport. “I was inspired by what happened in 17th-century Amsterdam,” explains industrial engineer Luud Schimmelpennink. The inventor of the Witte Fietsenplan is now an energetic octogenarian with keen, blue eyes under bushy eyebrows, and who still lives – and cycles – in the Dutch capital.
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