The Bike Sharing Phenomenon: What is Bike Sharing?

by ‐ Tags: green living

We are witnessing the rise of bike sharing transform major cities around the world.  New York City’s brand new Citi Bike program is immensely popular, Boston’s New Balance Hubway program exceeded expectations and totaled over 1 million rides before it’s 2 year anniversary, Chicago recently launched a 4000 bike program Divvy, and Washington D.C.’s Captial Bikeshare, established in 2010, continues to expand. It seems to be a great time to review this growing phenomenon.

Infographics on NYC's Citi Bike and Boston's Hubway Systems:

citibikeinfo resized 600hubway resized 600

 Bike Sharing History

Three months into my semester abroad, I found myself experiencing the city of Barcelona in a whole new way. With a flash of a smartcard, a red “Bicing” bike unlocked from one of the docking stations that can be found in every nook of the city.  As a friend held on from behind, we not so gracefully embarked on our trip through the city on top of a thin frame and shaky wheels. This was my introduction to one of the newest modes of city transportation around the world: bike sharing.

The concept of organized bike sharing actually isn’t so new. In 1965, a group in Amsterdam introduced a “White Bikes” program where bikes painted white were left around the city to be used and shared.  Not surprisingly, this failed pretty quickly as the bikes began to disappear. The next notable effort was in Copenhagen in 1995 with a program called “City Bikes” that used a coin deposit method to unlock bikes for anyone who wanted one. This too proved faulty, as without any tracking system or collateral, people could pay the small fee and then never return the bike. Recent technological advances like telecommunication systems, electronically locking racks and smartcards allowed the modern day 3rd generation system of bike sharing to truly take off in 2005 with Velo’v, in Lyon, France. Next came Velib in Paris and then a domino effect occurred across Europe. Programs can now be found outside of Europe too in many major cities of North and South America, China, Australia and more.*

As of April 2013, there are 535 bike-sharing programs around the world with 517,000 bikes.* The largest program is in Wuhan, China with 90,000 bicycles while the largest in the United States is now Citi Bikes in New York City with 60,000 bicycles. In terms of structure, the programs can be operated and funded publicly, privately, or most commonly, through a public-private partnership. 

Pros and Cons of Bike Sharing: Green living knockout, or all hype?

Bike sharing has many progressive qualities to it, especially in regards to two of the biggest issues today: health and energy use. It also expands the sharing economy, a sector that the technology age has helped a lot.  With modern information technology and communication networks we can easily share our homes, our cars, and our bycicles. Check out the company FlightCar for an interesting case in regards to this. Bike sharing programs are similar to ZipCar's in that they are a type of sharing network that takes all the burdens of ownership out of the equation.

Each bike share program has it’s own specific qualities so just the general pros and cons will be overviewed in this blog. First, here are a few of the benefits of bike share programs for individuals and society alike:

  1. They cause a general increase in bicycle use as mode of transportation
  2. Decreases short distance travel times
  3. Your bike cannot be stolen, nor can its wheels (This happened to both myself and my roommate last month in Washington, D.C.)
  4. Requires less infrastructure than other public transportation methods
  5. Can increase use of public transit with more accessibility of buses and trains
  6. Healthier citizens through exercise and better air quality
  7. Reduces climate change inducing carbon emissions
  8. Avoids our vulnerability to rising fuel costs (To avoid extra costs in most U.S. cities make sure you return or switch bikes within 30 minutes, 45 in NYC)
  9. Reduced traffic congestion
  10. Mother Earth and your traffic loathing psyche will thank you

One risk of bike sharing is that more bicyclists will not wear helmets.  However, studies show that the benefits of more bicycle usage outweighs the risks of more riders without helmets at a ratio of 77:1 or greater.* Policies that require helmets to be worn may actually be harmful to public health in the long run by leading to less bicycle use.

The British Medical Journal did some interesting research in Barcelona on the health affects of bicycling vs. driving.  In Barcelona, where the Bicing program exists without any helmet requirements, it is very hard to find a rider wearing a helmet.  The results from the research show that when car drivers switch to becoming bikers, transportation deaths decrease, as does air pollution (less asthma), and overall physical health improves.

Another big complaint about the expansion of bike share programs in cities like Boston and NYC is the reduction of street parking. Docking stations and more bike lanes take up space that could otherwise be used for resident and commuter parking. Then again, the over demand of street parking has always been a problem and improved alternative transportation methods are the solution.

So go check out a bike share near you! There are popping up everywhere from Charlotte, NC to Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. 

* Journal of Public Transportation

Earth Policy Institute

* The British Medical Journal