Pedal power: Why I love bike sharing

800px-Capital_Bikeshare_DC_09_2010_505Bike 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.

US-TRANSPORT-BICYCLE-SHARE-CITIBIKEThe 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, 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.

A bike lane in Amsterdam
A bike lane in Amsterdam


  1. Bob Friend says


    I agree completely: bike sharing is a great thing. I signed up for the NYC bike sharing program (Citibike) on it’s first day. It’s $95 for a year of an unlimited number of rides (45 minutes each). I’ve been using it almost every day, rain or shine. I was a bike commuter for years when I lived in Manhattan, but since I moved to NJ, it’s not really possible. Now I am a bike commuter again, due to Citibike. It’s great. It’s the future. Now, if they would just build bike paths going to the city, through the swamps of NJ….

  2. Sibley says

    Wow Marc, I didn’t realize how widespread this suddenly has become.

    I think that demographic trends will be what really propels this beyond a fad – the current 20 somethings and the next 20 years of college students are so much more community minded and environmentally motivated than my age group was. I predict the ironic future in which the generation who rode bikes the least as kids of any in the last century will be the ones to ride them most as adults…

  3. Dave says

    What with many of these bike-share programs trying to promote short trips? e.g. if I wanted to rent a bike for a day, bike out into the countryside, stay somewhere overnight, and then bike back the next day the Capital Bike Share system would charge me $94 (or $70.50 if I’m a longer-term member). That’s a crazy amount of money to rent a bike for that period! (In the Netherlands recently a 24-hour rental was something like 7-10 euros depending on where I was renting bikes from).

    For me to bike downtown where I live (on a dedicated bike path and avoid all the road congestion on the way) is about an hour. Were I in DC should I try to game the system by checking in my bike at an intermediate point, and a minute or two later checking out another?

    • Marc Gunther says

      Dave, you’re right, these bike sharing systems are not intended for long rides outside the city of even day long rentals, unless you intend to frequently park the bike. I’m not sure why–perhaps they don’t want to compete with bike shops which do day long rentals or more likely the idea is to keep the bikes available so that more people can use them.

      Bikes in the US are usually thought of as kids toys or opportunities for weekend recreation. At least as I see it, the goal here is promote bikes as transportation. That’s how they will deliver the biggest boost to the environmental, to health, to saving money and to making our cities more fun.

  4. says

    We have had a bike sharing scheme here in London for almost 3 years, and I’ve been a fan since day 1. There were lots of people against the scheme in the beginning – mostly because they wanted something to be against and none of their arguments made any sense. But it has gone on to be a great success, at least from a user’s perspective, and I don’t know anyone who has tried it and not loved it.

    In my experience as a car driver, taxi, bus and underground user it’s hands-down the fastest way to get around the city and also means that I’ve been able to give up my gym membership and still stay fit. Plus I don’t have any of the downsides of owning a bike: storage, risk of theft, maintenance.

  5. Rebecca Howland says

    While I am a huge supporter of bikes & bike sharing — and often ride the 14 miles round trip to my office — I will offer the single biggest detriment to the true expansion of bike riding in the city — safe options in which to do so.

    Not all of us are brave enough to risk it all to ride in traffic taking on buses, trucks, and aggressive passenger car drivers. And the limited number of bike lanes are still a challenge and dangerous.

    In Washington, DC (where I live) we have a decent number of dedicated trails that can get you to a lot of places — but to get to them, you have to risk life & limb. Our bike/peds death/injury rates are among the highest in the country.

    Real progress will be creating dedicated avenues/thoroughfares that are for non-motorized forms of transport only. We have some closure of our parkways on weekends for recreation. Shut down major north/south and east/west routes for commuting and you’ll see bike use soar. And cars will be SOL.

    • Marc Gunther says

      I agree, Rebecca. My hope is that bike sharing will create more demand for truly dedicated bike lanes, like the one on 15th Street in DC.

      Politically, the idea of turning streets into bike lanes or pedestrian paths is pretty much a non-starter but it would make for an interesting experiment. I’ve enjoyed car-free thoroughfares in places like Denver and Santa Monica.

  6. Dan Taylor says

    As an avid biker in flyover country I find your coastal elitism offending.

    “Interestingly, bike sharing and the ever-expanding biking infrastructure that goes with isn’t an east coast-west coast phenomenon.” Who would have thought us hayseeds knew any mode of transportation other than our pickup trucks.

    And there is the broad statement “Conservatives don’t like bike sharing”. Your bias prevented you from inserting a simple word like “some” to quality that accusation.

    • Marc Gunther says

      Thanks, Daniel, you’re right. In my attempt to counter a stereotype about the coasts, I inadvertently reinforced it.

      And, while I think the “some” is implicit in a sentence like “Conservatives don’t like bike sharing,” I certainly didn’t mean to imply that Dorothy Rabinowitz speaks for all conservatives.


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