I Still Don’t Understand Bike Sharing

I believe I’ve mentioned this before: I don’t get bike-share programs.

I’m not against them. I have no problem with them in any cultural, political, or economic way (unlike, say, Dorothy Rabinowitz). I simply do not understand how they can possibly work, i.e. actually attract enough users to make the system pay. And by “pay” I do not mean profit. I don’t see how such systems can even pay to maintain the bicycles that surely take a beating.

But apparently they do work. The system I saw in Antwerp last summer was surprisingly robust (from the perspective of a 6-hour walk around the city). Cities keep building these systems. So something must be going right — right?


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Comments 17

  1. Eliot Landrum wrote:

    I can’t speak for all of them, but the one in Fort Worth plans on getting a significant stream of money by advertising, not necessarily membership. Ads on bikes & stations.

    Posted 07 Jun 2013 at 1:14 pm
  2. Jim Phillips wrote:

    Right. Like bike lanes. Cities keep slapping them down so they must be working . . .

    Posted 07 Jun 2013 at 1:19 pm
  3. Keri wrote:

    I think it works best as part of an integrated transportation system. Having a bike share at the end of a train ride spares you the hassel of bringing your bike on the train.

    I can also see the appeal in a city like New York where bike theft is a major problem. You don’t have to worry about carrying heavy locks, locking your bike and stripping it of every single removable part before going into a store.

    Posted 07 Jun 2013 at 1:21 pm
  4. Ian Brett Cooper wrote:

    I don’t mind them – not that I’d ever use one. They encourage people to cycle and I hope that translates into more bike-aware motorists.

    Posted 07 Jun 2013 at 3:09 pm
  5. Ian Brett Cooper wrote:

    As for Dorothy Rabinowitz, it’s pretty clear that her days of sanity are long since past, along with whatever 15 minutes of fame she might have had at one time. Her ill-advised rant was the anti-cycling equivalent of the octagenarian motto: “Goldarn kids! Get off my lawn!”

    What’s more interesting to me than her insane comments, is the question of what bright spark at the WSJ thought it would be a good idea to fill her ancient craggy visage with powder and make-up and stick her in front of a camera. Not the Wall Street Journal’s finest hour.

    Posted 07 Jun 2013 at 3:17 pm
  6. Khal Spencer wrote:

    I think Keri nails it. Bikeshare works if it fills a logical niche, and she defines the niche. Its pretty much the same reason I keep a folding bike with flat pedals in a corner of my office, even on days when I ride to work on my road bike. If I have an errand at the other end of the technical complex at Los Alamos, I can unfold the bike and hop on the folder in my street clothing and get to my meeting faster than if I drive or try to find a government vehicle. It just works better than anything else.

    One does not have to be a flaming idealist or Johnny BicycleSeed to see the logic of a handy two wheeler. Just make sure you put Bikeshares where they will fill a real need.

    Posted 07 Jun 2013 at 4:04 pm
  7. Khal Spencer wrote:

    As far as the Sturm und drang about bikeshare in the Big Apple, I left this note on the Atlantic page:

    “Perhaps we need a social psychologist in the room. I don’t see where a few thousand rent a bikes are going to undo the dignity or functionality of New York. There is something subconscious going on here rather than something that can be explained by the logic of adding rent a bikes to NYC’s existing transportation mix. Perhaps in an era where we are all living on the edge, the sudden appearance of more change is just too much to take. Opportunistic rags like the WSJ will take advantage of people’s ease of coming unglued to sell newspapers.

    Posted 07 Jun 2013 at 4:07 pm
  8. Marcus wrote:

    I completely agree. I could never understand how it’s a profitable business model. I still felt they were a good idea and could be cheaper than other public transportation systems the bus or subway systems which always need subsidies. But it seems like local governments can end up paying nothing and things are completely funded by advertising and user fees.

    Are there any other public transportation systems that are self sustaining (I mean no ongoing government support)? I though pretty much everything gets a lot of funding from government.

    Posted 07 Jun 2013 at 5:54 pm
  9. Khal Spencer wrote:

    Everything gets government funding, especially motorist resources. It takes a boatload of money to maintain roads and bridges, much in excess of the fuel and registration taxes and fees. An unintended consequence of better fuel economy is that vehicles go farther on a gallon of fuel, hence the taxes do not support the VMD.

    Posted 07 Jun 2013 at 9:55 pm
  10. Robert wrote:

    I totally get and love bike share. Chicago’s system kicks off later this month. Can’t wait to photo myself riding one in a protected bike lane and torturing Andy with it!! 🙂

    Posted 07 Jun 2013 at 10:27 pm
  11. Steve A wrote:

    Bike share programs universally fail in locations with mandatory helmet laws. We shall see how Seattle’s upcoming program fares.

    Posted 08 Jun 2013 at 4:51 am
  12. Paul Smith wrote:

    I felt the same way at first! When our bike share started in Minneapolis, each bike cost about $4,000 to put on the road (with all the extra costs that is required to make them available. I wondered how it would payoff. We’re now in our 3rd year and it is paying off because people who hadn’t been on a bike in a long time, are discovering that bicycles are great urban vehicles. Even these clunky 3 speeds are a great way to beat the traffic and experience the city.

    There’s another benefit, think of bike share as a public transportation bus system…only without drivers or fixed routes and there is no fare (if you check the bike into a kiosk within 30 min.)! Just a couple of days ago I was at work on a detail away from my office. We had all arrived by car but I finished my work before the others in my group. I left and picked up a Nice Ride two blocks away and rode home. No need to call a cab or take a bus! The bike share is ready when you need it. I have totally changed my mind on these things. They are a great addtion to our city!

    Posted 08 Jun 2013 at 6:29 am
  13. Ian Brett Cooper wrote:

    “…think of bike share as a public transportation bus system…only without drivers or fixed routes and there is no fare (if you check the bike into a kiosk within 30 min.)!”

    That gives a false impression. I know of no Bikeshare program that is truly free for the first 30 minutes. You may not have to pay a fare at the point-of-service, but to avoid that you have to pay a per-day, per-X-number-of-days, per-month or yearly fee. Capital Bikeshare, for example, charges $75 per year. After that, using a Bikeshare bike is ‘free’ for the first 30 minutes, but given that you have to pay just to get in the system, that’s a very strange usage of the word ‘free’.

    Posted 08 Jun 2013 at 6:59 am
  14. Khal Spencer wrote:

    Its definitely not free, but its pretty inexpensive and for a place like Minneapolis, which is dead flat, at least compared to Bomb Town, pretty serviceable. A decent bike can cost upwards of six or seven hundred bucks new (I can usually find a used one for far less). My motorcycle insurance is around $400 per year. Yeah, nothing in life is free and important to remember that.

    Posted 08 Jun 2013 at 7:39 am
  15. Michael wrote:

    Salt Lake City has a bike share program and it seems to be working pretty well. SLC’s bike share serves tourists, who don’t need to rent cars thanks to SLC’s great light rail and transit and locals that commute to down town SLC VIA light and heavy rail transit.

    Posted 08 Jun 2013 at 9:17 am
  16. Andy Cline wrote:

    Wow … Y’all have been busy 🙂 I still don’t have internet access at home yet, so I’ve been out of touch. Glad to see CT never sleeps.

    I think Keri has it right in terms of an integrated system. That i can see. Come to think of it, that’s what I saw in Antwerp. All the stations were near other transportation o places people really want to go. I watched a women walk out of a grocery with two bags and hop on a share-cycle across the street. Off she went. I was impressed by that.

    Robert … Not only do I want to see that picture, I want to publish it 😉

    Posted 09 Jun 2013 at 11:17 am
  17. Eli Damon wrote:

    I didn’t really get the short-term bike rental thing because the bikes are not suitable to use the way I use my bikes. Someone who lives and works in Boston explained it to me. It works very well as an integral part of an urban transportation system. You can commute into the city by car or mass transit, but neither of those are efficient and flexible for getting around in the city. The bikes fill that gap and despite being slower than regular bikes are much faster than walking. So once you are somewhere in the urban core, you can use the rental bikes to go a few miles to work, a few miles to lunch and back, and few miles to a meeting and back, a few miles to entertainment, and then out of the city the way you came in. Or if you live in the city and normally walk and use public transit, you can rent a bike for trips that would otherwise be inconvenient without one without having to buy and store a bike and tote it around with you in case you might want it later.

    Posted 12 Jun 2013 at 11:07 am