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Bike Share Redux

by Melanie Colavito

I’m a little late to the party on this one, but there were some interesting bike sharing related headlines floating around in the last few weeks that warrant a little discussion.

Ironically, here I am writing about bike sharing again when I admitted recently to never having used a bike sharing system myself.  I’m not sure where that puts me in this argument.  Neutral observer?  If only…

Anyhow, the bike sharing conversation got a little spicy a few weeks ago when TIME Business published a story titled, “Why America’s Grand Bike-Sharing Experiment Is Failing“.  When I read this headline, I expected a rather in-depth story about why bike sharing as a whole is not working in [North] America.  I expected something, I don’t know, a bit philosophical, I guess, something pondering the viability of bike sharing as a transportation system in North America.

But the TIME story was brief, and it focused entirely on the recent news that Montreal-based Bixi, a bike sharing company, filed for bankruptcy protection.  To be sure, it sounds like Bixi has gotten itself in a bit of a debacle.  But I wonder, how do Bixi’s financial woes spell doom for bike sharing as a whole in [North] America as the article suggests?

In short, Bixi is the supplier for a number of city bike sharing programs in New York, Chicago, Toronto, and naturally, Montreal, as well as others.  In some cities, Bixi is also the system operator, though in Chicago and New York, for example, it’s just a supplier.  The real issue with Bixi has been with the system’s software, which was preventing people from renting or returning bikes properly.  Whoops, minor detail there.  Anyhow, between the software woes and other challenges, Bixi has found itself in a bit of debt.

Nonetheless, the bike sharing programs in most places supplied by Bixi aren’t directly impacted, and it seems like the hardest hit by the Bixi debacle are the tax-payers of Montreal.  Streetsblog wrote a nice refute to the TIME piece and its plethora of unsupported claims and fear-mongering about bike sharing doom in North America.  NPR also got on board with an interview of a Montreal reporter who provided some nice history and facts.

Image from Wikipedia

In short, it doesn’t appear that the doomsday scenario presented in the TIME article is supported by the experts on bike sharing.  Phew, good.

But then again, I’m still a little bit unsure how I feel about bike sharing as a whole.  Yes, they definitely serve a very useful purpose in specific situations, and they can help supplement transportation gaps for some users.  I think bike sharing is most definitely a good thing.  But…

Bike sharing systems can be costly.  Bike sharing systems are limited in the access they provide, be it through location or users.  These issues in and of themselves are not bad per say.  But is it possible that in some instances bike sharing is just a way of putting lipstick on a pig?  I mean, yes, I like pigs with lipstick better than pigs without lipstick, but what if some of those resources were spent giving the pig a bath and a haircut instead of lipstick?

I guess what I’m trying to say is that while I don’t have a problem with bike sharing, I do wonder whether some of the resources put into bike sharing systems could be better spent on developing safe cycling infrastructure in some instances.  As the Streetsblog article points out, “most cities are willing to subsidize their bike-share systems to some extent.”  That’s fine, but the last NPR story I wrote about noted that the issue of access is a big one for bike sharing systems.  They are most frequently used by white, middle to high income men.  So are city subsidies worth it if they mainly reach only a limited demographic?  Meanwhile, more and more people are bike commuting, and yes, bike infrastructure is improving in many places, but we still have a long ways to go.

Though I found the TIME article to be poorly written by someone who appears to have it out for bike sharing, I guess it did somehow get me thinking.  Is bike sharing the best way to encourage bike commuting?  Or is it putting the cart before the horse?  Or does it even matter, as long as we’re getting more bikes on the road and more awareness of cyclists?

But of me and my silly metaphors, what do you think?

 

 
Burley nomad 229

10 Responses to “Bike Share Redux”

  1. matt says:

    In Philadelphia we find that the biggest obstacle to bike sharing are the people in cars who don’t want to share the streets. Really, isnt it bad enough that they need to deal with pedestrians?Add to that the cab drivers who sense a loss of revenue. Everyone waves the “danger” flag, not to mention the “too costly” banner. Philadelphians aren’t much for change.

    That said, its coming. Like DC we have a great tourist use potential. Plus, I hope that if we flood the streets with bikes then maybe the car drivers will think twice about clogging William Penn’s Greene Country Towne with their horseless carriages.

    • I agree, one big advantage of bike share is just getting more bikes on the road and raising awareness for bikes overall. I think that’s one of its less tangible, but definitely significant, benefits for sure.

  2. Steve says:

    Bike-share is slated to come to Cincinnati this summer as well. As someone who’s been riding in Cincy for a few years now, I’m curious to see how things will work out for people new to urban biking in a city known for bad drivers and steep hills. In general, I expect I’ll probably see an uptick in the local “salmon” population… I am also wondering how the new bike-share will impact our still fairly new bike rental business downtown (where I used to work). I’m glad to see bike-share being implemented, but there are definitely a lot of factors to consider in the overall equation.

  3. So every form of transportation that I am aware of requires subsidy. For walking, it is a sidewalk. For biking, it is a street (and bike share in those cities fortunate enough to have it). For public transport, it is subsidy for everything that the low cost tickets do not cover. For cars, it is a street, it is repair of a street, it is a police/fire dept that spends the majority of its resources responding to collisions, it is taxation of vehicles and fuel at a rate LOWER than general sales tax, it is bailout of bankrupt manufacturers, etc.

    With every mode requiring some kind of government support, I think the only mode that requires less subsidy than bicycling, even with bike share, is walking. And try to make that appointment cross-town by hoofing it there…

  4. Jeff says:

    Berger, you’ve come closer to the Holy Grail than any other non-lawyer post on this site for a very long time.

    ‘Transportation’ is ALWAYS a commercial process. Its use rightly requires fees, licenses &c. But most cyclist ‘travel’, not ‘transport’. Therefore, and with SCOTUS blessing, travel is done by right, not by privilege.

    How boring is that. Well, very boring indeed! But its knowledge as a cornerstone from which to consider real-life viable cycling opportunities completely changes that consideration — shedding very many well-meaning but shortsighted ideas that seem to further cycling but which, in reality, harm the mission instead.

    Your conclusion that walking is your best option by default seems despair-ful. But it is not. Instead, you are thinking right….just extend your proposition a bit more and you will see that you, we, do indeed have a right to the roads. But that for as long as we insist we are moving on that same real estate under privileged ‘transportation’, we guarantee subservience to a position cyclists will never win.

  5. BluesCat says:

    Phoenix is set to roll out a bike share program towards the end of April. I’m really interested in seeing how well it flies in one of the most car-centric cities in America.

    Anything which even HINTS at reducing the number of car sales and the amount of gasoline purchased is going to face big resistance in the U.S. of A., especially from rich politicians in Washington who are bought and paid for by Big Oil and Big Auto.

    Also, there’s an entrenched world view, mostly on the part of staunch conservatives, that “bikes as transportation” is something “all them FOREIGNERS do, it ain’t AMERICAN!”

  6. Jeff says:

    We’ve got about two dozen profs who commute to our campus. Most are the dastardly conservatives you enjoy hating so much. Now, those folks don’t participate and contribute to the bike awareness on campus, other than having been instrumental in getting an air station put in at the student center. On the other hand, the ‘regulars’ who usually participate in campus cycling lobby events are indeed quite a bit more liberal. But none of them except a HIST prof ride. Not long ago one lamented that she couldn’t afford those fancy bikes. Literally as she stepped out of her Mercedes.

  7. BluesCat says:

    Jeff – A college professor who bikes to work isn’t really in MY category of “staunch conservative.” Staunch conservatives are those folks who pull up next to you in their gas guzzling SUVs and full size pickups and shout “Hay! Git up’n th’ sidewalk, Boy!” They’re people who are the active deniers of all things clean and green because “Thar mostly th’ stuff o’ hippies and COMMUNISTS!”

    Your college professors who bike are, at the max, those infrequently seen moderate conservatives, and I don’t really hate any conservatives. I simply severely distrust all of them.

    And as far as those hypocritical “regulars” go, at least they don’t actively OPPOSE better bike infrastructure like the staunch conservatives do.

  8. Jame says:

    Our Bay Area bike share is in alertly limited roll out. I was tempted to join (and I would be an under represented minority as a black female) but it isn’t where I need to be. I live in a city that hasn’t been connected to bike share (but we have tons of cyclists and it is growing. The stats say it is 50/50 women, and I don’t know the ethnic breakdown. I always see people on bikes out and about all times of day, more than half of them are not racing and are more utility cyclists).

    And I would think about taking transit to work and biking the last few miles, but alas my work city isn’t served as well.

    So it is a fail in my book. Our system isn’t really expanding enough, and really missed some obvious places for the first roll out, like Berkeley and Oakland where biking is really popular and our BART stations have a huge bike mode share.

  9. Bike Palmer says:

    This blog reminds us about the benefit of bike sharing with others as it increases the opportunity to try new bikes to follow.

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