If you live in or near an urban area, as does 51 percent of the world’s population, having a car can be a real drag. You have to park it somewhere. It costs a lot of money to operate. And even the greenest car exacts a substantial toll on the environment, whether it’s from emissions or wear and tear on public roads.
A bicycle neatly weaves around all those drawbacks, but has a few of its own. A bike is easily stolen; it can still be pricey for people on a tight budget. And the realities of city biking mean it will likely need frequent maintenance. Enter the bike-sharing program – a scheme that’s been picking up steam in cities around the world in recent years, as citizens seek ways to live in better harmony with their urban environment (and save money). As of this writing, there were at least 530 bike sharing systems worldwide (compared to about 375 two years ago), with almost another 190 in the planning phase or under construction.
How Does Bike Sharing Work?
Bike sharing comes in a few different flavors, and the models for implementing it have evolved over the decades (perhaps the first bike share that was acknowledged as such started in Amsterdam in 1965). In the 100-percent free model, brightly painted bikes are left within the boundaries of a pre-determined area, say a small town or a college campus, with the expectation that users will pick up bikes when they need them and leave them some place visible for the next person to use. In effect, it’s like the bikes are a form of public transportation.
The problem with that model: historically, bikes in the free model quickly wind up missing or vandalized.
To counter that, many cities have adopted the paid membership model. For a fee, users can gain access to the bicycles within a program’s citywide fleet. They’re saddled with the responsibility of replacing the bike if it gets lost or stolen (and are strongly advised to use a lock).
In the most advanced bike sharing model to date, information technology attempts to solve many of the problems bike fleet operators and riders encounter. GPS-equipped smart bikes are able to integrate with online apps, allowing a rider to locate the nearest available bicycle and map his or her travels. Such systems also provide for button-pressing simplicity of obtaining and returning bikes to designated bike sharing stations – as if the bikes were items in a vending machine.
Where Can You Find a Bike Sharing Program?
Cities large and small are adopting them, sometimes as an official project of municipal government, and in other cases as a result of organizing by concerned citizens.
In the United States, a relative latecomer to bike sharing, programs have popped up in major cities such as Boston; Denver; Fort Worth, Texas; Los Angeles; Madison, Wisconsin; Miami; Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Washington, DC. New York is planning to launch a 10,000-bike system.
The Bike Sharing World Map provides a visual guide to locales globally where you can find bike sharing programs.
How Much Does it Cost?
Bike sharing programs can recoup their costs in two ways: Charging members directly, or selling advertising on the bikes themselves.
Initially, it might not seem like much of a bargain compared to simply owning a bike outright. The upcoming Citi Bike New York charges a $95 annual membership fee, plus a sliding-cost time meter for renting a bike longer than 45 minutes. The upside is that the user doesn’t have to clutter his or her home with parking a bike and need not worry about maintaining it.
Using straight-line accounting, it’s difficult to see how most programs would be able to turn a profit. But the benefits of bike sharing go far deeper than the most easy-to-obtain financial figures. A thriving bike sharing program means fewer cars on the road, a fitter population, and an image for a city of a place that is progressive and welcoming to residents and visitors alike.