What good is a bikeshare system, anyway?

What impact does a modern bikesharing system really have on bicycling? So far, the evidence on direct benefits  seem somewhat weak at first glance. Several papers were presented at the Transportation Research Board in DC last week assessing schemes from around the world and the findings seemed remarkably similar regardless of context.

Most users are those who already rode a bicycle before with the remainder primarily taken from transit. Few are leaving their cars parked and hopping on bikes.

Most trips are commute trips, meaning the bikes wind up downtown in the morning and at the edge of town in the evening, creating a headache for distribution. The city of DC estimates spending over $1M per year, or half of its operating budget, just driving bikes around the city to keep the load balanced.

The majority of trips are around 20 minutes, which is about the same as the average trip length on any bike trip. Since most schemes give you the first 30 minutes for free to encourage high turnover, the vast majority of trips are free for users after paying a membership fee (typically around $50 a year).

With results like this, why bother with a bikeshare scheme?

First of all, even if it is existing cyclists using the system, this means that bikeshare is providing a valued service that is superior to riding your own bike for some riders. I spoke with three users of the system in DC, all of whom mentioned that their bikes had been stolen. They hadn’t gotten a new bike yet and decided that it was easier to use bikeshare than to worry about theft and storage of their own bike. In other words, it got some riders back on a bike who might have otherwise not bothered to continue riding. Of course, this also points to the need for better parking and storage for bicycles to prevent theft and to avoid the hassle of getting a bike in and out of your apartment.

Secondly, we need to focus on how bikesharing can be integrated most effectively with mass transit. Only NextBike in Germany is operating as a private business. All other systems operate as some form of public-private partnership (typically advertising financed) or are fully managed by the public sector as essentially a cheap form of mass transit. Bikeshare should work hand in hand with existing transit agencies so that the bikeshare solves the “last mile” problem. This means locating bike stations (or incentivizing floating system users) so that bikes are easily available near stations. It will also mean integrating fare collection systems and route planners so that bikeshare is connected seamlessly to transit options. Transit operators will also need to be  integrated into schemes to ensure connectivity between systems.

Systems should come down in cost and eliminate waste. There is no reason that half of operating costs should be spent on redistribution. We need experimentation in incentivizing end users to do the redistribution using innovative pricing schemes and mobile technology rather than contributing to CO2 and congestion by driving bikes around on trucks. Some of the more innovative systems in Germany like NextBike and Call-A-Bike have done away with parking stations entirely, which also brings down start-up costs and changes the game on redistribution. Given that most trips are commute trips, why move them back to the periphery after the morning rush hour when they will only be needed again in the center in the evening?

It is a dirty little secret that for $50 a year, you basically have a free bicycle while maintaining the appearance that it is a pay-per-use system is brilliant. Since the fee structures rise dramatically after 30 minutes and the system has all your identity and billing information attached to the rental, it also discourages abuse. However, some people may decide to opt out thinking that they will get stuck paying high fees if they ride longer. Also, some users do get stuck with high fees because they don’t understand the tiered pricing model and may get scared off after a big bill. Marketing should be more clear to ensure people know how little they will likely be spending. The revenue generation should be primarily elsewhere, as it mainly is now, such as advertising,  tourism and subsidies.

Perhaps the most important piece of all of this development is that bikesharing seems to lend legitimacy and visibility to bicycling. Having a fancy high-tech system of brightly colored bikes locked up on racks around the city seems to make people suddenly recognize that bikes are a real part of the transportation system, giving cycling more political power. Plus, none of these systems can truly function without good infrastructure. Once biking is institutionalized as a state run transit operation, suddenly the city seems to feel more responsible for providing safe bicycling infrastructure for all cyclists.

It is still the early days for bikesharing and we are still trying to figure out what value such systems can have. With continual innovation, we can develop a robust system that can make biking appeal to more people, garner political acceptance and support for cycling, integrate with and improve mass transit, and push for improved conditions for all cyclists.

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6 responses to “What good is a bikeshare system, anyway?

  1. This is good.

    Transfer by trucks or vans is waste, and in worst case totally against any environmental objectives. At the very least these vehicles need to be tailpipe emissions-free, speed-limited and limited in size. The labour part might actually be okay if it means that the bikes are kept in good running order.

    But of course there is never any “free” in regards to money, especially not in what I like to call these ads-for-bikes schemes.

    In ads-for-bikes, the starting point for this financing is the increased price of goods which comes from marketing them. So – especially in the globalized marketplace – everyone who buys the product pays the same extra bit but only some get to enjoy the other part of the cycle, in this case a bicycle. And for the most part these bikes are only available in urban cores, which are starting to become the most expensive parts of urban areas again. So everyone pays but only the more wealthy can use them. Or is that too simplistic? Probably few care, and they are simply concerned with getting more people cycling. But there are basically little to no sustainability standards for stuff being advertised to pay for bikes (cars are in some areas). So then the bikes are not environmental…

    Perhaps that is fine. A bikesharing system which gets more people cycling or makes their pedestrian activity more convenient is a great thing. But providing bikes as one does park benches, public toilets etc. is a good thing, even if the system is functional and not much more.

    – Todd Edelman, OPENbike

  2. Perhaps another way of looking at it is the money spent is advertising for the bicycle. The all-important symbolism necessary in cities to show that the bicycle is back, the bicycle is normal. Maybe cities could get funds from their marketing budgets.

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  4. good to know more about bikeshare systems. being in a country (india) where all this is a nascent stage, for us to even have a point of view is not possible. New Delhi recently started some bike stands along with the Delhi Metro Rail. now some of the key stations have bikes for hire and as i said we are still at a rudimentary stage and the system is pretty funny. out here you hire a bike and you are supposed to give it back to the same bike station. the hiring charge is really low and one needs to submit decent identification.

    the issue is because one has to give it back to same station which in most cases is a pain it insures people are stuck to the route one can’t just move out some other exit point. for ex.: one can’t change his plan midway, he needs to come back all the way to give back the bike.

    another problem is that people are scared of the bike getting stolen as we still don’t have good parking system. a bike getting lost means the biker has to pay for it. if in the same situation the hiring and dropping could have happened across different bike stations chances of theft could have been lesser hence chances of people using the bike would have gone higher.

    what surprises me of DC system is that if they spend so much of money on bikes to be transferred back to the stations. why not do a happy hours deal during non-peak hours which can be area specific.
    also one can lower the rates of biking after 30mins slot and start charging a small amount for the first 30mins also. if we think 20mins is the average distance people need to cover which automatically becomes free in case of free 30mins ride. why not slash it to 15mins free biking and then charge a little amount for first one hour or so (hypothetical since i have not much idea about the pricing). the idea should be to get a larger base of payed user even at a bit lower cost.

  5. Bike share is also in Minneapolis Minnesota. 2011 will be the first full season of NiceRide. Last year there were over 100,000 “trips” on these bikes. Put into perspective one grad student logged over 450 “trips” alone. If used diligently and conscience of the 30 minute limit a $ 60.00 year subscription is a bargain. This system is non-profit and is trying to expand quickly to cover a larger demographic area. That means more middle class workers will be included into the mix which for now has been wealthier downtown and student populations.How will we measure bike share success? Does having a full corral of bikes awaiting rental induce new riders to bicycle transportation in the USA? Is the bicycle industry dropping the ball by staying quiet on bicycle transportation? In the future who will be riding bicycles in the USA if ownership of a transportation cycle has been co-opted to such an extent that it is nothing but a fixture in our landscape waiting for the odd bird to take it for a nostalgic spin

  6. Pingback: Bikeshare for robust cycle cultures | On Our Own Two Wheels

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