Bike share is all the rage in the United States. In the last month, both Chicago and New York City have launched bike share programs. As bike share programs reach more and more people, many are questioning whether these programs are an effective use of money. I believe they are.
There have been three major waves of bike share programs in the past. The first bike share program was launched in Amsterdam in the 1960s. The system was simple. There were a number of white bicycles placed around the city and people could use them whenever they wanted. The anonymity of the program led to its demise, however, as people either dumped the bikes into the river or reappropriated the bikes for their own personal use. The second wave of bike share programs came a few decades later and were coin-operated. The first major program during this wave was set up in Copenhagen. However, like, Amsterdam’s bike sharing program of the past, there was no way to determine who had checked out the bikes, so they were quickly stolen. Now we are in the third wave of bike sharing, where users sign up for memberships and use membership cards to check out bicycles. These programs have been much more successful than programs of the past because individual users are held responsible for bicycles they check out.
Two major bike share systems have launched this month: Chicago’s Divvy program and New York City’s Citibike program. Chicago’s program has gotten off to a successful start. In the first day of memberships being available, more than 700 people signed up. Members pay $75 a year for unlimited 30 minute rides. More than 400 bikes at 75 stations around Chicago will be available this week, and by next year more than 4000 bikes will be available at over 400 stations. The bikes are heavy-duty, upright bikes with chain guards and fenders to protected clothing, and baskets for carrying objects. Coupled with the major expansion of protected bike lanes in Chicago, the program is expected to significantly increase the number of cyclists on Chicago streets. Ultimately, the goal is to increase bike use and make streets safer for cyclists and pedestrians.
New York City’s Citibike program has many similarities to Chicago’s. Part of the reason is that both systems are managed by Alta Bicycle Share, the same company that runs D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare program. Citibike costs members $95 a year for unlimited 45 minute trips. New Yorkers have been able to access bikes since last week. So far more than 33,000 people have signed up for annual memberships.
Bike share programs have been proven to have many positive effects. First off, they tend to raise the percent of bikes used for transportation between 1 and 1.5%. Within two years of bike share being launched in Barcelona, the percent of bikes used for transportation jumped from 0.75 percent to 1.76 percent. In Paris, percent of bikes rose from 1 percent to 2.5 percent in the six years after its bike share program was created. Bike share programs have also been proven to increase transit use when bike share stations are placed around transit stops. This is likely because they are used as the last leg of transit trips for those who live or work more than a quarter mile away from transit stops. Finally, bike share programs have a positive impact on the environment by getting people to bike instead of driving automobiles. Montreal’s bike sharing program claims to have saved more than 3 million pounds of GHG since 2009 and Lyon’s program claims to have saved 18.6 million pounds of CO2 from entering the atmosphere.
There are a number of issues with bike share programs. Some complain about the high costs of replacing lost bicycles. For example, if users fail to return a bicycle to a station within 24 hours in Chicago, they are charged $1200. However, I don’t think this pricetag is unreasonable for such a durable bike. Also, the high price tag should be a good deterrent to bicycle theft. Others complain about the high cost of keeping bicycles checked out past 30 minutes. I imagine those who complain about this don’t understand the purpose of bike share. The bikes are designed to be used for quick trips, not to be used for leisure riding throughout the day. If users were allowed to check out bikes for long periods of time, there would never be enough bikes available for the other users of the system. There are also complaints about the big, bulky bike sharing stations, particularly in New York City. Some just complain that they are ugly, but others complain they take up valuable parking spaces. Although the bike share stations do take up a lot of room, it is nothing compared to how much space cars are taking up. Where one car could park before, now half a dozen bicycles can be parked. If bike share programs are successful in lowering automobile use, this shouldn’t be an issue. Finally, there are equity issues associated with some bike share programs. Bike share stations tend to be installed in affluent neighborhoods where people are more likely to use the system. Although this makes sense from a financial perspective, it makes it more difficult for people living in low-income neighborhoods to get access to bicycles.
Bike sharing programs of today definitely have room for improvement. For example, bike sharing programs could be modeled after point-to-point car sharing services like car2go. Bicycles would have GPS transponders installed and they would be able to be parked anywhere within the “home zone,” making bike share stations unnecessary and allowing bike share bikes and private bikes to be locked up side-by-side. A less radical approach to solve the bike share station issue would be for cities to do a better job of placing the stations, and to make sure the design of the stations jive better with the look and feel of the neighborhood. When all is said and done, however, I believe the benefits of bike sharing programs outweigh the costs and every city should move toward introducing their own bike sharing programs.