Bike sharing is said to be experiencing “the fastest growth of any mode of transport in the history of the planet.” Whether that’s true or not, it’s hard to know. But there’s little doubt that bike sharing is growing fast, particularly in the US, and that’s encouraging for a bunch of reasons–people are getting healthier, the environment is getting cleaner and cities are becoming more bike-friendly. What’s more, the economics of bike sharing are surprisingly favorable; urban systems require modest subsidies from taxpayers and in some instances they appear to be self-supporting. Despite that, bike sharing is generating a puzzling backlash from some conservatives, which we’ll get to in a moment.
I recently signed up for Capital Bikeshare, the four-year-old bike-sharing system in Washington, D.C., My experience has turned me into an enthusiastic booster of bike sharing.If you haven’t tried bike sharing yet, and it’s offered in a city where you live, by all means, do so!
Some observations on the bike-sharing phenomenon:
The big picture: New York, of course, rolled out its bike-sharing program last month. Chicago’s program opens on June 28. The number of cities offering bike-sharing in the US is expected to grow from 22 at the beginning of this year to twice that number by next spring, and the number of shared bikes will grow from 9,000 to more than 36,000, according to this excellent article by Janet Larsen of the Earth Policy Institute. Globally, more than more than 500 cities in 49 countries provide advanced bike-sharing programs, with a combined fleet of over 500,000 bicycles, Larsen wrote in Treehugger.
Interestingly, bike sharing and the ever-expanding biking infrastructure that goes with isn’t an east coast-west coast phenomenon. Tulsa was the first US city to offer bike sharing, back in 2007. Minneapolis-St. Paul and Denver offered programs in 2010. B-cycle, which operates operates bike-sharing services in Charlotte, N.C., Des Moines, Iowa, and Kansas City, Mo., has proposed a service for Indianapolis, which has one of the most robust bicycle-trail infrastructures in North America.
Bike sharing in your nation’s capital: Capital Bikeshare is the largest bike-sharing program in the US, with about 1,800 bright-red bikes stationed at 200 locking docks in DC and suburban Virginia, with Montgomery County, Md. (where I live) soon to follow. Locals and visitors have logged more than 4 million rides.
While all the usership data is public, until statisticians have a go at the information, it will be hard to know precisely how and why people are using the system. Some 6,800 members of Capital Bikeshare responded to a survey last year that found that:
50 percent said they drive a car less often since joining Capital Bikeshare
31.5 percent reported reduced stress as a result of using Capital Bikeshare
20.6 percent reported increased aerobic capacity
Capital Bikeshare ridership has topped 10,000 trips per day on several days this spring. The success of the program has helped spawn a growing number of bike-only lanes in the city, including a two-way set of lanes right down the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue that offers great views of the Capitol.
The economics of bike sharing: They’re good and getting better, as bike sharing scales. New York City says that its program NYC Bike Share, which is sponsored by Citi,
is not receiving any taxpayer or federal-aid dollars to establish and run the bike share system. In fact, the City expects that the system will make money. The City and NYC Bike Share will split all profits.
DC’s Capital Bikeshare cost about $16 million to get going, according to this (critical) article at reason.com, but it is apparently close to break-even on an operating basis. (I emailed a city official to get more info, but got no response.)
Costs could come down dramatically, according to Tom Glendening, a consultant with E3Think, if cities adopt a “smart lock” technology, which incorporates GPS and mobile communication into every bike, as opposed to the capital-intensive “smart docks” now being used. Smart locks will soon be tested in Hoboken, N.J.
More important, to the degree that bike trips replace car trips, and even sometimes when they don’t, the benefits to individuals and cities are significant. For bikers, less money spent on gasoline and car maintenance means more dollars to spend or save. That’s good for the economy. For cities, bike sharing reduces air pollution, traffic congestions and, potentially, health care costs. When compared to costly roads or mass transit systems, bike sharing and bike lanes are bargains.
My experience: I’ve take just a dozen trips on Capital Bikeshare, and only seven since becoming a member on May 10. An annual membership costs $75 a year–a bargain if you use the system to avoid fares on the Metro or, potentially, cab rides. So long as you complete your trip in under 30 minutes, the trip is free. Added time costs $1.50 per half hour. Here’s more info on pricing, which is designed to encourage short trips.
Most of my trips have been short. According to the log kept by the system, I’ve traveled just eight miles, burning 344 calories and avoided 5.44 lbs of CO2 emissions.
The bikes are unavoidably big and clunky, but all the ones that I’ve used have worked fine. A very cool mobile app called Spotcycle enables riders to locate bikes (usually easy to find ) and available docks (sometimes tougher). My only frustration came one evening when I arrived at Nationals Park for a ballgame about 10 minutes before game time, only to find that all the docks had filled up. I had to ride a mile away from the ballpark and then jog back! I’ve had a couple of occasion to seek out customer service, with excellent responses.
The backlash: Conservatives don’t like bike sharing. Strange. Maybe it’s the sharing part–smacks of socialism, I guess. An online video of a mean-spirited and unintentionally hilarious tirade against New York’s bike sharing system from Dorothy Rabinowitz of The Wall Street Journal editorial page went viral, and drew this response from Stephen Colbert. The New York Post has whined about “an endless cycle of problems for Citi Bike share,” and while there have been software glitches, more than 65,000 bike trips had been made using the system in the first 10 days.
Felix Salmon of Reuters has a brilliant theory about why some people have gone bonkers of bike sharing. He writes:
The Driven Elite used to be able to feel superior to everybody else just because being driven around the city was easier and quicker than than any other form of transportation. Their ability to ignore the subway is really quite impressive: one of the themes running through Too Big To Fail was senior bankers turning up late to emergency meetings at the NY Fed because they had been stuck in traffic when taking the subway would have been much quicker. But it’s harder to ignore bikers who are happily riding past your car and getting to where they want to be so much faster than you are. And because the likes of Dorothy Rabinowitz would never be seen dead on a bike, they’re railing against the evolution of their city into something great which they feel excluded from.
We’re at the beginning of what I suspect will become a virtuous cycle driven by bike sharing: More people will bike, generating demand for more bike lanes, making biking safer and easier, which will lead more people to bike. America’s cities could well begin to look more like Amsterdam or Copenhagen–and that’s a good thing.