Cities in Europe and around the world may be sprouting "bike trees" in the near future.

Invented by Japan's JFE Engineering Corp., the invention is proving a bonus in the busiest districts of this nation's famously congested cities and the company hopes to begin exports to Europe and the rest of the world in the near future.

Local authorities across Japan have struggled for ways to encourage people to park their bikes considerately, particularly close to public transport hubs, such as major stations, but sheer volume of numbers means that many block narrow roads and entrances to homes and businesses.

"Our cities do not have a lot of space for any sort of parking, including bicycles, so that was the task we were given to overcome," Mitsuharu Oshima, a spokesman for JFE Engineering, told Relaxnews.

Essentially, the bike tree comes in two versions; one in a tower that is above ground, the other in a subterranean basement. The first one that went operational can store 1,216 bikes, but the largest one in Japan is close to Kasai Station in Tokyo and can hold 6,480 bicycles.

The idea behind the scheme is relatively simple. A cyclist registers with the operator of the facility, pays a monthly fee of Y1,800 (€13.36) and pushes the wheels of his vehicle into restraints at the base of the bike tree. Each bicycle is fitted with an electronic tag that stores the owner's details.

A mechanical arm then pulls the bike into the base of the tower and moves it to a free location inside. To collect the bike later, the cyclist merely swipes his card through a reader and his two-wheeled steed is automatically returned to him in a matter of seconds.

"The engineering of these facilities has been difficult - even though they may look quite simple - because bikes come in many different shapes and sizes, plus we always have to consider the issue of safety," said Oshima.

As well as clearing away the pavements, bicycles cannot be stolen from a bike tree.
There are presently versions at seven sites in Japan and two others are under construction, while work is under way on an even larger version - with room for 9,400 bicycles - in Thailand.

And Oshima believes that the concept could catch on in Europe, particularly in countries such as France, Holland and Denmark, where cycling is so popular.