Is Bikeshare Really Viable?

I want to talk about bikeshare today.  An article from Streetsblog USA came across my feed this morning that made me think about it again.   The article explains how bikeshare is growing but that the growth is limited to just a handful of cities.  When I look at the chart that accompanies it, the growth appears to be limited to one city, in fact, and that city is New York.

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If that is indeed the case, it begs the question…  Is bikeshare something most cities should be pursuing?  More on that in a minute.

I’ve used bikeshare in two cities (Boise and Indianapolis) and have observed it in many others including Chicago, Nashville, Omaha, Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City and Toronto.  These comments are based on what I have seen for myself and as always I might be wrong.

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Pretty bikes, all in a row.  Not many people were riding in Chicago on Christmas Eve.  Those that were meant business.

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Bikeshare touristas in the Strand, PGH

The bikeshare bikes I used were comfortable.  They were durable and somewhat clunky, but relatively easy to ride.  The Indianapolis bike had some deferred maintenance.  It pulled to the right a little.

The two systems were completely different.  Boise used a traditional lock that you carried with the bike.  Indianapolis required you to dock the bike to lock it.  As a practical matter, either way is fine and it only took a minute to figure out each system.

In the places where I’ve ridden and also the places where I’ve just observed,  bikeshare strikes me as more of a tourist amenity than a practical tool for commuters or people who might otherwise rely on bicycles for transportation.  The exception was Chicago.  People in Chicago were taking care of business on their Divvy bikes.

Everywhere else, they were either riding for pleasure or they weren’t riding at all.   We were in Pittsburgh on the first nice day of spring and there were hundreds of people on bikeshare bikes.  We visited  Toronto in late summer and although bikes were everywhere in the urban core, I didn’t see one person on a bikeshare bike.  The same was true of Nashville  and Omaha…no takers.

My takeaway from the Streetsblog article is that bikeshare is only growing in one US metro, and that metro is completely different than every other city across the land.  It’s far more dense, population-wise.  People there are pre-disposed to share transportation where in most other places they are not.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t embrace it.  What I’m saying is that most cities should think long and hard before they invest in a bikeshare scheme that will be either underutilized or used primarily by tourists.  It sends the wrong message either way.  Bicycles are transportation, not a toy, thrill ride or gimmick.  That’s what we have to move towards if we’re ever going to change broader conceptions of who we are and what we do.

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6 thoughts on “Is Bikeshare Really Viable?

  1. I think that’s the wrong conclusion to draw from these numbers.

    It’s more that the growth in NYC hides the other growth, due to it’s much larger overall population.

    But percentage-wise, NYC is is “only” seeing healthy double digit growth, while “others” has (roughly, hard to tell from the graph) quintupled in 5 years.

    Without more data, we can’t really tell how much of that growth is expansion of new markets and how much is growth in existing smaller-market systems.

    Disclosure: I’m in Austin, and our system has seen good growth and multiple expansions.

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    • Thank you for your comment. As I said in the post, I might be wrong. Just curious…how is the Austin system primarily being used? That’s of more interest to me than just simple growth numbers. I suspect all of these systems are growing to some extent, but my concern is that they’re sending the wrong message to the general population, many of whom still view bicycles as recreational toys. In the cities I mentioned it was more about tourism than transportation. Unless these systems are viewed as transportation first and foremost, I think it might hurt more than it helps.

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      • I agree that tourism is probably a big part of it (the days of highest usage invariably coincide with the big festivals), though I’m guessing (I looked and couldn’t get any solid figures) that they get healthy ridership from residents as well.

        The Austin system sells yearly passes (targeted for residents) and just recently started low-income focused program (also for residents).

        http://austinbcycle.com/how-it-works/b-cycle-for-all

        >>Unless these systems are viewed as transportation first and foremost, I think it might hurt more than it helps.

        In my opinion, anything that gets more riders out in the streets is better. The studies have shown that increasing overall ridership (for whatever reason) increases safety. The drivers know that riders might be there, and are on the lookout for them. It also provides an argument to the city to increase infrastructure, which then feedbacks to better ridership.

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  2. Agreed, mostly. From what I’ve seen, for a bikeshare system to work, a city needs two things: 1) an effective and established public transit system, and 2) willingness to invest in an extensive network of bikeshare stations. Bikeshare works best as a supplement to buses and trains; DC Metro, for instance, is heavily used, but skips some major areas of the city. In NYC, bikeshare is a fantastic alternative to overcrowded (and usually gross) subways. Boston and Toronto, for instance, have pretty good trains and buses, but they haven’t really invested in enough bikeshare stations to fill in the holes (especially Toronto). Bike people (of which I’m one) tend to imagine that bikeshare will draw people away from cars, but most of the time it draws them away from transit.

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    • Thank you, Brian. I think you stated it well and I think #2 is where most places fail. I 100% agree with you on Toronto. Fabulous transit but the bikeshare network was weak. Chicago, on the other hand, has both transit and extensive Divvy docking stations covering the city. What prompted my post is that Ogden is considering Bikeshare with less than 10 docking stations. It likely won’t succeed because it fails your #2 point and people who are disinclined to like biking will point to it as wasteful. One city I’m rooting for is Omaha. Their airport is close to downtown, and they told me that there are plans to put a bikeshare docking station at the airport. That would be awesome. Thanks again. I appreciate your perspective. 🙂

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  3. Pingback: Bike Share Redux | Bike 5

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