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.
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?