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.