Seven years ago, if you wanted to ride a bicycle in a U.S. city, you probably had to own it. Now, bike-sharing programs are spreading across the United States, expanding — and transforming — transportation options.
Bike-sharing allows riders to pick up a bike in one location, typically at a station, and ride it to another location with a station. Riders can either be members of the program, or one-time users, and can keep the bike as long as they want, paying for the time it is in use.
There are now nearly 1,000 bike-sharing systems in use around the world, and 88 million trips have been taken by U.S. bike-sharing users since 2010.
In 2016 alone, American riders took over 28 million trips, on par with the annual passenger levels of the entire Amtrak system, and higher than the number of people visiting Walt Disney World each year, according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials.
But America was late to the bike-sharing efforts. The first major bike-sharing program began in 1965 in Amsterdam, but ended shortly after when the bikes were all stolen. But other global cities, such as Paris, Barcelona and Montreal, launched systems that caused American visitors to ask, “Why can’t we have that at home?”
In 2008, bike-sharing finally came to a major U.S. city when Washington D.C. launched SmartBike, according to Capital Bikeshare, its successor.
Minneapolis and Denver implemented bike-sharing programs in 2010. Big programs in Chicago, New York City and San Francisco followed, and by 2015, there were more than 1 million bike-sharing bikes in use worldwide, according to Citylab. About 30,000 bike-sharing bikes are in use in the U.S. in 55 systems.
Today, bike-sharing programs are being used both by tourists and locals to get around town, but also as a “last-mile” solution, or a way to get from public transportation to a train or bus station.
The economic impact
Studies have shown that bike-sharing programs boost local economies. Researchers at Pennsylvania State University analyzed the spending habits of bike-sharing program users in Washington D.C., whose program is nicknamed CaBi (for Capital Bikeshare).
The researchers discovered that two-thirds of riders said they traveled to a particular location based on their spending habits. One-quarter of the riders reported that they were likely to spend more because they had arrived on CaBi and not another method of transportation.
And, one in five business surveyed in the study said that CaBi had had a positive effect on their business.
As the benefits of bike-sharing programs have become apparent, even more cities are launching bike-sharing program. In May, Detroit finally joined the movement, after studying the idea for years. Called MoGo, it has 43 stations and 430 bikes.
MoGo attracted 4,000 riders in its first week of operation, according to Detroit’s Metro Times. The program joins bike-sharing systems in Ann Arbor, Traverse City, Lansing and elsewhere in the state, according to MLive. Meanwhile, Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon, added their bike-sharing systems in 2016.
Bike-sharing programs reduce pollution in urban areas by getting cars off the road, boost local economies and giving riders a way to improve and maintain their health. But the programs have drawn some complaints.
This past week, New York City saw its first death of a Citibike rider, causing a discussion of whether bike-sharing riders are getting enough safety instruction. Many bike-sharing riders do not wear helmets, since it’s difficult for visitors to find access to them. Advocates argue that the size and slowness of bike-sharing bikes helps offset danger to riders.
There’s a socio-economic debate, too. Critics say bike-sharing stations are often placed primarily within the affluent areas. In many cases, the programs didn’t initially reach poor communities, in part because many systems require a bank account or credit card to enroll.
That disparity was pointed out by the Penn State study. It found that more than 92 percent of the CaBi members made $35,000 or more, and only 5% had less than a four-year degree. Today, about 24 percent of bike-sharing programs have a discount or free pass offer based on income.
The London bike-sharing system was implemented during the summer 2010, mostly in affluent communities, according to a study conducted by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
In 2012, the program was expanded across the River Thames, into economically depraved communities. Once that happened, the number low-income members doubled.
Significantly, membership didn’t fall following a price rise about a year after the East London expansion, and the study concluded that access to the system, not economic status, was the main barrier to joining.
The future of bike-sharing: leave your bike in a tree?
Most bike-sharing programs in the U.S. depend on stations, forcing users to start and end a trip at a station. But the future of bike-sharing looks like it will be stationless. Cities in other countries have already implemented stationless bike-sharing.
China has become the epicenter of stationless programs, but not without numerous hiccups. The system works through riders locating the bikes with a GPS; once a rider connects to a bike via a QR code or combination, it unlocks.
The bikes contain a solar panel, which charges the electronics on board each bike so there is no need for them to connect to a station. This system allows riders to ride the bike directly to their destination, instead of having to drop a bike at a station and walk the remaining distance.
This gives riders the freedom of leaving the bikes anywhere, including but not limited to in trees, in rivers and in massive piles. In many cases, the number of bikes has completely flooded cities, leaving many bikes in disrepair and not in use, according to the Guardian. A simple Google search of piles of bikeshare bikes brings up thousands of photos.
For these reasons and others, San Francisco has been hesitant in allowing Bluegogo, a Chinese Bikeshare startup, to expand operations there. Despite the lack of official permission, Bluegogo placed bikes on the public bike racks in San Francisco, then quickly removed them following backlash against the move, according to the Mercury News.
Stationless bike-sharing has seen success in Austin, Texas, under bike-sharing company, Spin, according to Triple Pundit. If the program is successful in Austin, stationless bike-sharing programs could be implemented in other cities across the U.S.
From just four systems in 2010 to 55 and growing now, bike-sharing clearly has become part of the nation’s transportation system.
As the National Association of City Transportation Officials puts it, “The expansion and densification of systems across the country is helping move bike share towards realizing its potential as an integrated, low-cost part of city transportation systems. More people on bike share means that more people are saving time, realizing new opportunities for exercise and health, and finding it easier to access economic opportunities.”