Search This Site:

Bicycle Sharing A Good Idea, But Many Issues Remain

bicycle sharing in London

Bicycle sharing sounds like the most environmentally sustainable and frugal transportation solution imaginable. Just think of not having to own a car or a bike, but being able to find a cycle in large cities and pedal one-way to where you need to be.

Advantages would be no gasoline use, some healthy exercise, and low cost per user because a resource, in this case a bicycle, is being shared.

Well, slow down before drawing that conclusion. Despite the growing popularity of these programs the last few years, especially in Europe but increasingly in America too, most have required a considerable government subsidy. Theft continues to be a big issue, and despite the common practice of painting the participating units a common bright color, those who want to disassemble the rental bikes to sell parts are still succeeding. We do think technology can solve this problem though.

These problems raise the question of which policy goals you want to address in your program. Possibilities include:

  • Lowering air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from cars
  • Devising an inexpensive transportation option for tourists
  • Reducing peak hour congestion for commuting to work or school, thereby making it possible to squeak by for a few more years without widening roads
  • Reducing or eliminating the capital start-up cost of having personal transportation
  • Wishing to add to the character of a city that is bicycle-friendly and would like to cultivate even more riders
  • Needing university students to travel from one side of campus to the other in 10 minutes or less
  • Experimenting with a longer-term conversion of more automobile drivers to cyclists
  • Needing to help people move as much as possible as a public health priority
  • Providing green jobs or a green business opportunity
  • Adding to the coolness factor of an otherwise staid city

Quick Review of the Status of Bicycle Sharing Programs

The first bike share program that people seem to remember is the Amsterdam white bikes in the late 1960s. I think this was more of a project or social experiment than a serious attempt to alter the transportation system. It didn’t last long; when the cycles are all stolen, that tends to halt everything.

There have been scattered other attempts, but almost everything operating now has started within the last 3 or 4 years. The largest known system is in Hangzhou, China, where there are about 60,000 bicycles in the system. Paris has 20,000 in the Velib program, a second attempt by the way.

Europe and Chinahave a significant number of programs. Dublin, with only 450 bicycles in its sharing system, has the highest known number of trips per day per unit, with 10. Australia has bicycle sharing in Brisbane and Melbourne. In North America Montreal’s Bixi system is large; Toronto has now jumped on the bandwagon.

U.S. cities are led by the nine branches of Motivate Co., including CitiBike in New York, Washington's Capital Bikeshare, and Biketown in Portland.  Miami, San Antonio, and a number of universities are following suit.

On college or business campuses, sometimes the bicycles are not supposed to go beyond a defined perimeter.

The systems tend to work on one of two principles, either a smart card activation or cell phone activation. Since the honors system didn't work, many places now require a membership fee. Sometimes a credit card is required to obtain the membership or a smart card has to be swiped to unlock the bicycle.

Lastly, the concept of bicycle libraries has emerged, with public library systems actually taking a look at extending their rentals to bicycles. Sometimes six months is mentioned as the amount of time appropriate for checking out a bike. This solution often is considered the right one for lower-income populations where cycle maintenance costs are a problem.

A new trend in bicycle sharing is so-called dockless or stationless bikes. In these systems, which are in place in Chinese cities, Dallas, and Seattle, among others, the bicycles do not need to be returned to fixed locations.  Instead technology allows the rear wheels to be locked when a user leaves the bicycle in any location.  An app helps those seeking a bike to ride to find the nearest location. Recently New York City blocked one company, Spin, from operating in the city while further study of the issue was conducted. The disadvantage could be bicycles left in a disorderly fashion all over the city.

Problems with This Approach

Experiments and different ideas about how to reduce theft seem to dominate the policy discussions surrounding these programs.

Another tricky problem is to how to provide supply, and to report supply and demand to users, in real time. It sort of removes the spontaneity part of the fun if you have to reserve far in advance.

But if you think that's bad, say you're a tourist, you used bicycle sharing to go to the zoo, and now you're ready to go back to the hotel, but there's no bike in sight. You get on your smartphone and find out that state of affairs isn't predicted to change any time soon.

Now you begin to see why this apparently simple idea isn't as easy as it looks.

That's why we say on this website that your program design must be very clear about which social, economic, and/or environmental goals you’re trying to maximize before you start. A lively discussion with the public, which easily could be conducted through website polling, is suggested.

As an example of why we are emphasizing the goal-setting so heavily, consider that most of the programs we've seen seem inherently easier to use for the locals than for tourists. This is true because of fairly intricate rules, annual memberships, and sometimes less than completely obvious pick-up and drop-off points.

Green Stuff:
e-waste recycling circuit board
E-Waste Recycling

cluster housing rural area houses lake
Cluster Housing

green communities tree planting
Green Communities

Experience shows that having the pick-up points closer together results in greater utilization, but of course also greater start-up costs.

Yet tourists and poor people seem to be the people who would be most grateful for the ability to have what amounts to bike rental.

By the way, doesn't a one-time bike rental service make sense for these two groups who really don't want to buy a one-year membership? That's yet another wrinkle.

Heavy use of GPS technology seems to be an answer both to the theft problem and the issue of navigation for tourists.

As we imply already by talking about green entrepreneurship, it's possible that a small private company could run bicycle sharing in your community. However, the technology to control theft will have to become less expensive for this to be a truly self-sustaining activity.

Even if run as a public government program, it will have to be subsidized. This is not even worth considering as a municipal profit center.

So our suggestion is that social entrepreneurs get busy and figure out the answers to how to provide bicycles with a unique design rendering them unattractive for theft, a way to keep track of who has the bicycle and where it is at all times, a foolproof method to charge a credit card if one disappears, and solutions that balance the need for up-front money from memberships with the fact that tourists and people who really can’t afford to own and maintain their own bicycles ought to be major beneficiaries.

Surely with a combination of mobile phone apps, GPS, RFDI, and computer-assisted manufacturing, answers can be found.

At this point the technology is expensive enough that bicycle sharing is practical only where population density is high—such as high-rise or mid-rise apartment areas in cities or college campuses.

Our advice to mid-sized and small cities is to wait until the big cities have inspired someone to mash together technology solutions to logistics and thievery questions. Just concentrate on making yourselves a bikeable community in the meantime.

The multiple potential benefits to the environment from reducing traffic congestion, vehicle miles traveled, and possibly even vehicle lanes needed surely justify more effort in this area.

From a community development standpoint, you’re going to have many more conversations on a bicycle than in your vehicle. The slower pace makes noticing and interacting with the built environment, in both its positive and negative aspects, much easier. So let's figure out bicycle sharing in the denser parts of our communities.

> > Bicycle Sharing

Subscribe to Our Monthly E-Mail Newsletter
We use the popular MailChimp newsletter platform. If you would like to subscribe, click here to be taken to the subscription form on their website. We will use your first name and e-mail address only to send you the newsletter.