Bike Sharing is on the Rise in Big Cities, but Can it Work?

Share By Sachin Shenolikar

Considering ditching that clunky car for a good, old-fashioned two-wheeler?

You’re not alone. A growing number of cities are embracing alternate forms of transportation to combat congestion, pollution and an unhealthy lifestyle that too often comes with urban living.

Bike-sharing programs are on the rise, and it’s easy to see why: It’s a simple way for people to get 30-60 minutes of cardio per day; it reduces the number of cars on the road, which is good for the environment; and it can be convenient even for folks who own a set of wheels.

But can bike-sharing transform the way we get around big cities? Although the results have been mixed so far in places such as New York, the potential long-term impact is huge.

“For certain trips, riding a bike-share bike is simpler than using your own, finding a secure place to lock it, and then worrying about it being exposed to the elements and theft,” says Jennifer Toole, president of the Toole Design Group, an urban planning firm that specializes in transportation.

So far, 30 cities nationwide have rolled out bike-sharing programs. Washington D.C. is credited with being a first adopter and a role model with its successful Capital Bikeshare, which started in 2008. Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco have also been able to fold bike sharing into their communities, integrating technology such as phone apps and social media into an old-school mode of transportation.

With its massive population and vast multiple-borough range, New York is a more ambitious endeavor.

Started last May, Citi Bike’s first year saw several ups and downs, but considering the task at hand, its development has been considered a success overall.

“Once the initial and inevitable teething troubles around installation were over, it seems like Citi Bike established itself as a fixture of New York City life,” says Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists.

Still New York has pressing issues to resolve this year. It must reduce computer glitches in bike docks, strategize about the best locations for docking stations, and continue to build an infrastructure that ensures biker safety (more bike lanes, etc.) And it must do this while finding a way to raise money. News recently broke that Citi Bike needs tens of millions of dollars in funding to survive.

Unlike other cities, New York’s system is funded privately, making the problem more complex.

Citi Bike’s $95 per year subscription price hasn’t added enough revenue, so an item on the agenda is trying to increase the number of short-term users (day passes are $9.95). New York could look to other cities for some inspiration for building a fanbase.

In Boston, a new program allows doctors to prescribe a subsidized $5 yearly membership to low-income patients. Chicago’s Divvy program has been creative in engaging citizens and making the bike commuting experience more fun by offering prizes for people who find the one red bike in its system of blues. Washington has a similar incentive with its #BikeInBloom contest.

“That has become a treasure hunt for users,” says Clarke.

Another city that has seen significant growth in bike sharing is Chattanooga, Tennessee, where out-of-town visitors represent about half of the 50,000 annual trips and enthusiastically support the program, says Philip Pugliese, Director of the Active Living and Transportation Network in the city.

Some experts believe that convincing more tourists to use Citi Bike in New York would be a step toward solving its money issue.

“I think we are beginning to see a leveling off in many larger bike share cities in terms of growth in usage and membership,” says Pugliese.

“Methods learned in markets such as Chattanooga to promote behavioral change with more resistant populations may be useful as we look for ways to promote bicycling to a larger percentage of people.”

Focusing on select neighborhoods before expanding could also streamline the process.

“I think that within almost every city there’s going to be an area or areas where bike sharing is going to work,” says Clarke.

“You do need some density and a captive audience, so downtown areas, especially those served by transit, are tailor-made for success.”

Still in their early stages, bike share programs such as Citi Bike are bound to go through growing pains. For now, a realistic goal in a place like New York is to think of the system as just one useful component in the city’s overall vision for going green.

“Most cities have strong goals as far as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and a lot of those goals are dependent on reducing single-occupant vehicle use,” says Toole. “The more options that people have for doing that, the better. Bike share is part of a palate of options that help cities reach that goal.”

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comments (3)

  1. tvor03

    We had a bike sharing program here in Lexington called Yellow Bike. What happened? They all got stolen. Big failure.

  2. disgruntled Washingtonian

    I live in dc and the bikes which don’t have to pay for registration tags or insurance slow traffic down dramatically make a 10 minute drive 30 and never obey traffic laws. They have given the bikes entire lanes that were once used reasonably for cars that pay to use them. The street is for cars. Then to top it all they lowered the max speed limit to like 40 miles an hours in most places 25 equals more traffic them the pedestrian so are always in the street because traffic is slower. A big stupid mess. I was born here and all these hipster jets running red lights on bikes should have to pay registration and tag fees to clutter the streets as they do. If they try and bring this to tour town this is what will happen. Not to mention the 100 25 mph speedingiticket machines that make u pay for more bikes and more bike lanes when the regular lanes are crap and bikes do not obey traffic laws. It’s not even a question whether this is stupid consider that gas is almost four dollars and registration and tags for a year is like 200 bucks insurance is like 1000 for six months

  3. skywatcher93

    I travel to Boston every so often, they have bike rentals. Several problem with it, are as follows. Usually bike are damage and unmaintained. very few location in where they can parked. Only means to pay are by credit/debt. Even for just a days use, a very large hold on your account.


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