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Hubway bicycles in Boston docking station await riders.


Shared Wheels

Bike Share Programs Gaining Popularity


Bike-share programs are popping up across the nation. Many cities are beginning to implement bike sharing as part of their overall transportation plans. The idea is to replace short-distance car, bus, or subway travel with bicycling. Bikes are made available at stations throughout the city, riders pick up a bike at one station and drop off at another. Users typically have the option of purchasing a day pass or an annual membership.

Andie Bridges

When biking is integrated into a city’s transportation plan, there can be substantial improvements in quality of life for residents. David Watson, executive director of the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition, says, “Bike share is an integral part of our public transportation system, with people using it on its own or in concert with transit trips.” Pedaling can be a wonderful way to cut down on pollution, road repair costs, traffic, and parking problems.

Bike shares are particularly useful in dense downtown areas where short-distance cab rides are expensive, buses are inefficient, and parking is scarce. Elliot Greenberger, manager of Chicago’s Divvy, says, “Our goal is to become the most convenient, fast, fun, and affordable way to get around Chicago … An annual membership is just $75, so on average we save our members $760 per year on transit-related costs.”

Aside from saving money, bike-share programs also introduce an excellent mode of exercise to new users. Says Watson, “It draws riders who don’t consider themselves bicyclists, regular people wearing regular clothes who just need to go somewhere. It is a low-cost and easy way to introduce someone to bicycle transportation without the expense and intimidation factor of buying and riding your own bike right away.”

A Growing Trend

Chicago’s bike share program launched in summer 2013. In just under a year the program has seen over a million trips by over 150,000 24-hour pass holders and over 16,000 annual members. Numbers from other cities are equally encouraging. Boston saw over over 900,000 total trips last year, and Capital Bike Share in Washington, D.C., has recently expanded to include 319 stations. San Francisco Bike Coalition’s Kristin Smith would love to see her local program continue to grow: “We hope that in 10 years, every San Franciscan will have a bike station within a block of their house and their work, and that people will be able to easily use bike share as a core transportation option.”

A city of cyclists sounds quite utopian, but bike-share systems often fall short of the egalitarian notion of bikes for all. Many systems are heavily utilized by young, affluent males but miss an opportunity to serve other populations. Low-income residents are much less likely to use bike-share programs.

One potential barrier is the credit card requirement. Many lower-income residents do not have access to credit cards while most bike-share systems require a credit card as insurance against loss of equipment. Says Greenberger, “Theft is prevented by capturing riders’ credit card information and holding a $1,200 fee attached to bikes that go missing. That is the true cost of the bike and prevents riders from taking the bikes.” This makes financial sense, but it fails to address the transportation needs of the entire population.

A Prescription to Pedal

While other cities have struggled with providing cycling for all, Boston has led the way in ensuring access for all residents regardless of financial background. The program includes 13 stations in low-income neighborhoods and provides 1,000 subsidized memberships each year. A nonsubsidized yearly membership runs $85, out of reach for many residents. Eligible, low-income riders can purchase an annual membership for just $5.

Recently, the city has taken it a step further. Doctors in Boston can now write low-income patients $5 annual cycling memberships. A prescription, along with a free helmet and a doctor’s encouragement, eliminates barriers and provides extra incentive to start pedaling.

One of the main difficulties in operating bike-share programs is distribution. Due to work and school schedules, people are often headed in the same direction at the same time. This may cause one station to completely empty of bicycles while another overfills, preventing timely returns. When riders do not return bikes within the specified time, typically 30 minutes, they are charged extra. Meanwhile, other commuters are stranded without wheels. Striking a balance is essential to an effective system. Says Greenberger, “Rebalancing during rush hours is a big area of focus for us.”

An Investment in Community

Programs throughout the country operate with various forms of funding. Citibank procured naming rights to New York’s bike-share system by contributing $41 million. Blue bicycles bearing the name Citibike can now be found in stations throughout the city. Other cities have also utilized company sponsorships. This may be great advertising, but there is considerable debate over the financial profitability of bike-share programs.

While some see potential profit, others believe bike transportation should be viewed more holistically. Buses, subways, traffic lights, and well-maintained roads are all a part of providing safe and effective transportation. Bikes might be considered in the same light. Says Watson, “Just like public transit, it is difficult to sustain these systems without public investment. Bike share should be thought of as public transportation and financed accordingly.”

Regardless of whether bike sharing proves to be financially profitable, it certainly appears to be a winning investment for residents seeking a more active, healthier community. Santa Barbara’s mild weather and relatively dense downtown provide a favorable backdrop for shared cycling. State Street would be an excellent place to start.

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