a post about bike sharing, someone mentioned the famous Red Bikes in Madison. Once or twice a year, someone asks me, or posts a question on the Bikies list, about the Red Bikes that Madison has/had. So here is the story:
The original Red Bikes program was indeed a bike sharing program - you could borrow a bike for a short time - a few minutes up to an hour or so - then use another Red Bike when you next needed one. The idea was that Red Bikes were put out by Budget Bicycles in the spring, and people could use them if they needed to get somewhere. You weren't supposed to lock them up, but just leave them somewhere unlocked, so someone else could use the bike.
As opposed to bike sharing programs that are being run formally around the country/world (see previous post), you couldn't rely on a Red Bike being available when you needed it. They were few and far between, and people who didn't understand the program, or were looking to cause trouble, would either "steal" the bikes (although I'm not sure how you "steal" something that is free), or would trash the bikes, strip them, or ride/throw them into the lake.
Roger Charley, the owner of Budget Bicycles, and a great supporter of bicycling in general, transportation bicycling in particular, and also a wonderful patron of advocacy efforts, decided that the program just wasn't really working. So it was changed to what exists now.
The current Red Bikes program is more like a cheap/free, long-term bike rental. You go to Budget, put down a deposit, get a basic bike and a lock, and use the bike as long as you need it -days to months. This is great for people visiting Madison for a few weeks or th summer. The program is also popular with new arrivals, especially grad students or international students, that may not have the money to buy a bike right away, but want basic transportation.
When you return the bike, you get your deposit back. You are responsible for keeping the bike safe/locked up, and you can bring the bike in for basic repairs like fixing a flat or having the brakes adjusted. (Please check with Budget for the details, I haven't checked all the fine print recently.)
So there is no Red Bikes as "pick one up for an hour to run an errand" anymore, which is the niche of a bike sharing program. However, the Red Bikes are a very useful, and very generous program run by Budget that fills a different sort of niche.
Hope that helps explain the past and current program.