Does the World Really Need Bike Share?

Trying to Fix What’s Already Broken

Like me, I bet you’ve heard your fair share of chatter about bike share. Like about how “equitable” or “inequitable” these systems are.  Or whether and to what extent people of color or lower incomes have equal access to bike share stations and bikes.
According to people who research this stuff, so far, bike share has been used by the relatively young, male, white, and wealthy. It’s not hard to imagine why this might be true.  Many bike share “programs” are corporate-sponsored and therefore are put in places where the bikes will be noticed by discerning consumers.  Oh yes, there’s that detail about paying to use bike share bikes.
But lest you be confused, my focus here isn’t on making bike share systems more “equitable”—for they never will be—but on whether these systems should exist at all.  
I know, I know. In my line of work, denouncing bike share is akin to arguing that Panda’s aren’t cute. Totally faux pas.

a bike share system in Charlotte, NC
Charlotte’s B-Cycle Bike Share System

What’s Wrong with Bike Share?

So why am I hating on bike share? Doesn’t it possess a “stellar safety record?”  The kind of record where—according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO)—people can cycle 28 million miles with just a single death (in Chicago)?

And what about bike share’s health benefits? For example, in February 2017 alone, users of NYC’s Citi Bike bike share evidently burned precisely 79,514,040 calories and offset exactly 1,033,683 pounds of carbon.

That trendy, awesome, stupendous bike share? What, pray tell, is wrong with bike share?

What I’m about to propose may be upsetting to some. A lot of my friends and colleagues enjoy trying out different cities’ bike share systems. Others work within or for these systems. I suggest reading no further if you are too close to bike share systems or not sufficiently open-minded to hear some pointed arguments against their very essence.

That Which is Wrong with Bike Share

For one, bike share is expensive.  Let’s look at what it takes to keep the United States’ most used bike share system NYC’s Citi Bike going.  In 2012, the mammoth corporation, Citigroup put forth a staggering $41 million over 5 years to brand a system that now features 598 stations and 7,600 bikes.  On top of that, MasterCard sponsored the system to the tune of $6.5 million. That’s a total of $47.5 million over 5 years or $9.5 million per year. 
To sustain something that costs $9.5 million each year, you have to raise revenue, right? Toward this end, users enjoy the privilege of paying $12 for a day pass, $24 for a 3-day pass, or $163 for a year pass.  Alternatively, they could visit a bike co-op and earn a solid used bike to ride, repair, and share themselves in a matter of weeks (more on this later).

Aside from the costs, bike share is wasteful. In February 2016—when demand was relatively low—Citi Bike said it “rebalanced” 39,811 bicycles.  In September 2016—when bike share demand was relatively high, Citi Bike rebalanced 111,085 bikes.  If the word is new to you, “rebalancing” means picking up, driving around, and dropping off bikes at different docking stations. It’s true that a few hipsters use cargo bikes to rebalance bikes,  yet lumbering vans and trucks are the norm. How “sustainable” is that?

In addition to the cost and wastefulness of bike share, the system is inherently impersonal.  All systems work in service to the system, not the user.  Plus, systems are not engage-able. They’re not like a person or small group of people.  You can’t simply walk up to a bike share station and bargain or dialogue or reason with it.   With bike share, as with any system, you must contend with a legion of “system administrators”, self-credentialed professionals (e.g., technicians, customer service reps, planners, GIS specialists, app developers, etc.) who create and enforce and rules about how you may or may not use the system.

Leading Institutionalized Lives

Any system that is costly, wasteful, and impersonal is unnecessary. Well-meaning and often lovely administrators of bike share systems believe they provide their “customers” with a “needed service.” But they neglect to see that they and their sponsors are the ones who created a need in the first place. 

In the case of bike share, the so-called “need” is really about supporting a highly structured system of docking stations, clunky-ass bikes, and—as we’ve seen— a tangled web of planning and technical assistance.  All of this to make bike share even modestly functional.

Remember how Citi Bike’s bike share system costs $9.5 million per year? It’s worth noting that in 2016, people took a total of 455,401 rides on NYC’s bike share. That, my friends, translates to an unconscionable $20.86 per ride! Though a steal when compared to expanding a highway, there must be other ways of fostering healthier, more equitable, and livable communities.

“Alright”, you might be thinking, “maybe bike share isn’t worth it.” If you think this, I would obviously agree.  Yet I’d like to take this a step further and suggest that bike share is actually bad for society.

Seen through a wider lens, bike share, like all systems, institutionalize the way we live.  When life becomes institutionalized, we take one big step toward a world screenwriter, Terry Gilliam warned us about.  We become deskilled, detached, dependent, helpless.

Or in the sage words of the political scientist, Matthias Finger and the author, Jose Manuel Asun:

“Modern societies appear to create more and more institutions – and great swathes of the way we live our lives become institutionalized. ‘This process undermines people – it diminishes their confidence in themselves, and in their capacity to solve problems” (p. 10).

A Convivial Alternative to Bike Share

So what are cities to do? The solution lies in the spirit of one elegant, meaning-laden word: cooperative. Not another system, but a platform upon which people determine their own bike mobility.

Let’s imagine applying Citi Bike’s fortune to bike cooperatives (co-ops). At $9.5 million a year for 5 years, NYC could provide more than three bike co-ops to each of its 59 community districts (194 co-ops in total). This assumes that the city rents store fronts at an average of $12,000/month and pays one full-time employee at each co-op an annual salary of $100,000.

With 8.4 million residents, that’s one bike co-op for every 47,500 residents in NYC after just five years.

How else do bike co-ops contrast with bike share? At bike co-ops, people…

  • Learn bike-related skills (bike share teaches us how to use bike share).
  • Have some say about how bike co-ops operate (not so with clunky bike share).
  • Don’t have to pay to visit and engage with others.
  • See no need for bike rebalancing.
  • Build community.  Bike co-ops provide places for folks to interact and learn from each other in a reciprocal way (by design, bike share operates in one direction).
  • Give of their time, energy, and creativity (with bike share, people submit to the whims of the system).

To advance accessible, equitable, convenient bike mobility for all, we must create the conditions under which people realize and sustain these ends themselves.  Our damaged world could benefit from fewer centrally planned, managed, and impersonal systems.  We need structures that help us build trust and camaraderie. Bike co-ops—not bike share—lend soul to communities, convening neighbors around the beauty of human-powered transportation.

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