What Bike Sharing Says About Our Cities and Our Values

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By: Michaela Kramer, Evergreen CityWorks, Intern

Bike sharing programs have gained immense popularity over the past decade. There are variations in over in 500 places around the world. Yet their presence often sparks controversy- with advocates pointing to their popularity and social value while critics object to their economic instability. Both positions speak to wider questions about what we, as a city, consider to be a public good, how new programs should be paid for, and how we can improve access to services among low income communities. The dialogue around bike sharing is important in order to improve these programs as they continue to grow, but also to explore what this global trend says about our cities more generally.

What is bike sharing?

A bike sharing program is a transportation system in which bikes are available to the public at stations around a neighborhood, or across a city, on a short-term basis. Usually these systems offer yearly or one-day subscriptions, both of which allow users 30-45 minutes of riding time between stations, with additional costs attached to rides that exceed this time limit. The systems are geared toward city residents or tourists travelling from one destination to another rather than those interested in taking leisurely cycling trips.

While the idea was originally developed in Paris, the largest system now operates in Hangzhou, China with a total of 66,500 bikes available. The first Canadian city to receive a bike sharing system was Montreal, whose BIXI program launched in 2009. This was followed by Ottawa a month later, and Toronto in 2011. In 2015, Vancouver is expected to launch a bike sharing system as well.

Bike.Share.PhotoA Hangzhou Public Bicycle station, Source: Flickr 

For most, the appeal of bike sharing stems from its ability to provide users with mobility and flexibility. Bike sharing can be added to car or transit trips to make commuting more seamless or to reach places where transit does not extend to. It allows people to cycle to their destination and then take transit back if the weather, or simply their mood, changes. And unlike owning a bike, users don’t have to worry about the initial cost of purchase, storage, maintenance expenses, or theft.

Why does it matter?

Bike.Share.Photo(3)Bike sharing programs have numerous benefits, including environmental, health, and economic effects. They are important drivers of urban sustainability, helping to lower greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, and traffic congestion. In Denver, 34 percent of B-Cycle members use bike sharing to replace trips otherwise taken by car. Also, bike sharing promotes healthy living by providing exercise to users, lowering their stress levels, and helping them to feel happier. 31.5 percent of Capital Bike Share members in D.C. saw their stress levels go down once they started bike sharing. They also help attract tourists, they can serve as a local employer, and boosts the business of bike-related shops.

BIXI riders in Montreal, Source: Flickr

Yet these benefits are not without costs. Bike sharing programs, alike most public transportation systems, provide the predicament of being expensive to implement and run while needing to be relatively cheap to the user, in order to ensure accessibility and to dissuade people from driving. Subscriptions, normally at a cost of $60-$100 per year or $6-$10 per day, despite their popularity, are not enough to finance the operating costs that bike sharing demands.This means that the revenues from subscriptions must be subsidized, either through tax dollars, by a local community group or nonprofit organization, a public-private partnership, or a corporation.

Is bike sharing a public good?

There are two ways of looking at bike sharing: either as a public amenity that the city has interest in maintaining but seeks private funds to run or as a public good that should be financed through city revenue due to its public value. The former was adopted in New York City when proposals for Citi Bike were endorsed as a privately funded project.

But what makes bike sharing any different than other transit systems or other public goods? Many argue that bike sharing programs are an extension of public transit and should be publically financed because of their essential value to the city. These are the questions that some New Yorkers are asking as Citi Bike endures another year of financial loss despite its overwhelming popularity among users. . Similar concerns were raised when Montreal company, BIXI, filed for bankruptcy last January.

Bike.Share.Photo(2)BIXIs outside a Montreal metro station act as an extension of transit, Source: Flickr 

Some claim that the model of financial self-sufficiency was not only overly optimistic when Citi Bike was proposed but possibly unnecessary as well. If sustainability and healthy living are goals that city governments endorse, why shouldn’t more support be given towards bike sharing systems?

This is the thinking that has been adopted in Washington D.C. where Capital Bike Share is partly funded by the United States Department of Transportation and in London where Barclay’s Cycle Hire is largely subsidized by Transport for London. In Minneapolis, Nice Ride is operated by a nonprofit with money from a federal grant and the Blue Cross. In these cities, there is an understanding that the public good generated from bike sharing systems far exceeds their financial loss.

Can bike sharing systems be improved?

Accepting that bike sharing programs are a worthwhile expenditure of tax dollars is one thing, but the work doesn’t end there. There is a major problem of inaccessibility for low income communities around the world that needs to be addressed, especially if public money is going to be funding these projects. One reason for this is that in many places bike sharing stations are clustered in the commercial centers of wealthy residential neighborhoods (usually where an abundance of transit exists anyways) with disparities in low-income areas. For example, this has been a critique of Bike Share Toronto, which barely reaches beyond the city’s central core. Another problem is that low income residents are more likely to have longer commutes that might exceed the 30-45 minute time limit of most systems.  Furthermore, bike sharing programs require users to have credit or debit cards, which restricts some people from accessing these services.

These maps illustrate the differences in accessibility between various bike sharing systems, Source: modified from Quartz 

Unfortunately, these limitations stand in the way of bike sharing being accessible to the people who could benefit from it the most. Low-income neighborhoods are usually not as well served by public transit compared to other areas, so bike sharing can be an important tool to mitigate the inadequacies of transit. The person who finds it most difficult to manage the upfront cost of purchasing a bike would benefit greatly from having a bike sharing membership. Low-income residents are more likely to spend a greater portion of their income on transportation costs so developing more transit options can work to alleviate this burden. Overall, there is a need for bike sharing networks to be designed in more accessible and inclusive ways so to benefit the city as a whole.

There are various ways of going about this, some of which have been implemented and others that have only been proposed. One strategy to expand the accessibility of bike sharing is to more evenly distribute stations in low income neighborhoods or next to strategic locations like social housing. Another method is to make memberships more affordable by offering discounted rates, payment plans, or waving the temporary insurance fee that most systems charge. In Boston, qualifying low-income residents get a $5 membership and a free helmet. Capital Bike Share in Arlington County, Virginia developed a special marketing campaign in Spanish aimed at reaching Latinos with limited English proficiency. Ultimately, one of the biggest barriers is the credit card requirement. To solve this, some have proposed that local organizations or nonprofits could recommend people they trust who do not have access to a credit or debit card.

What bike sharing teaches us

Bike sharing is not about making a profit and it’s not about providing a novel amenity. It is about leading positive change on the critical issues facing local cities today. Supporting bike sharing programs illustrate the values of a local government, prioritizing health, sustainability, and livability. It improves the environment of the city and the experiences of the people in it.

Bike.Share.Photo(5)Citi Bike riders in New York, Source: Flickr