Is the U.S. a Brewing Bike Share Republic?

Close-up of a bike that is part of city bike share systems.
Image: Pixabay

A look at several cities’ bike share systems reveals what is and isn’t working for small hubs and the largest metros.

Sharing is caring when it comes to bicycles in the United States, especially if it eases traffic, reduces carbon footprints and promotes healthy lifestyles.

Currently, 104 U.S. cities either run their own bike share systems or hire a contractor to manage and maintain the bicycles and rental stations, according to a 2016 study by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Bike share systems encourage commuters and tourists to pay a fee to unlock a bicycle at any outdoor docking location in the network, or hub. The bikes are strategically placed near train and bus stops in order to extend the transportation network and provide access to nearby and far-flung locations. The heavy-duty bikes can be returned to any station within a specified time. The systems are IT-based, and many bicycles are equipped with GPS technology in order to keep track of them.

From campuses and small cities to our largest metropolises, bike share systems are being tested, reinvented and replicated from coast to coast, and their numbers are sure to rise.

Capital Idea

Capital Bikeshare, (CaBi) launched in 2010, was the nation’s first bike share system — and its largest — until 2013, when New York’s Citi Bike started.

According to a 2013 article in Slate, The Best Bike-Sharing Program in the United States: How D.C., of all places, made it happen, Paul DeMaio, an urban planning student at the University of Virginia, came up with the idea for CaBi almost 25 years ago. DeMaio was doing research when he stumbled upon images of ByCyklen, a new “city bike” program launched by the city of Copenhagen.

“Enthralled by the idea, he visited the city, learned what he could about the system, and, eventually, distilled his findings into a master’s thesis on bike sharing,” according to the article.

CaBi has grown to offer more than 3,500 bikes at 400 stations across Washington, D.C., Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax, Va., and Montgomery County, Md. Bikes are available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and the first 30 minutes of each trip are free. Each additional 30 minutes incurs an additional fee, according to CaBi’s website.

Ownership of the bikes is shared by the local governments and operated in a public-private partnership with Motivate, a bike-share management company that also works in Boston, Chicago, New York and other cities.

Most Rides

The Big Apple always goes big, even when it comes to bike sharing and Citi Bike’s 10,000 bikes spread across 600 stations in 55 neighborhoods proves that. Last year, the program set a new ridership record with more than 14 million trips.

Citi Bike costs $12/day (unlimited 30-minute rides) or $155 for an annual membership (unlimited 45-minute rides).

Citi Bike’s latest record shows that bike share is fulfilling its promise as a vital part of New York’s transportation network — increasing access to the city transit network and communities underserved by public transit,” Jay Walder, Motivate’s CEO, said in a recent interview with Gothamist.

Short Spin

In 2015, Philadelphia put its own stamp on the bike share phenomenon by launching a program — Indego — in which a third of the bikes are located in low-income neighborhoods. Additionally, all residents have the option of paying cash for the rental.

According to Indego, station locations were selected based on proximity to community resources, employment centers and bike infrastructure.

“Indego provides a viable alternative to using cars for short trips,” said Christine Ginsburg, its program controller, *in a recent Q&A on Philadelphia’s bike share program blog. “We used to walk to take care of errands, but that norm lost out to our car culture. Indego encourages us to leave our cars behind.”

Small Scale

Wellesley College in Massachusetts manages a bike share program on campus with 25 bikes purchased by alumni and through a grant. The bikes are available to students free for 24-hour intervals.

Wellesley Bike Share’s mission is “to make Bike Share easy and accessible for all students on-campus and advocate the benefits of riding bicycles.”

Better Way

The city council in Salem, Mass., recently approved a $35,000 request to hire Zagster, a bike sharing program based in Cambridge, Mass., to replace Salem Spins, a cumbersome, underfunded system the city launched in 2011. The expenditure would pay for the first in three years of a contract for three stations scattered around downtown Salem, with 18 bikes total, according to Salem News.

Kim Driscoll, Salem’s mayor, said she hopes residents, commuters and students at Salem State University will use the bicycles. Additionally, the system will be open to tourists. Driscoll estimates at about 1 million people visit Salem each year for its architecture, literary and marine history and autumn Haunted Happenings program.

“Zagster manages over 140 bike share operations and provides us with a one-stop shopping experience — from bike hardware to technology and maintenance to marketing,” Driscoll said. “We feel like they will be a great partner to help us grow and expand Salem’s bike share program.”

To accommodate the system and create a safe riding experience “the city is investing in better bike infrastructure — new bike lanes, bike paths, signage … aimed at making it safer for people to ride a bike in Salem,” she added.

Agency System

Roanoke, Va., is set to launch a new bike share system this spring.

RIDE Solutions will partner with Zagster to introduce the Star City’s expanding population to 50 bikes and 10 stations throughout the city. According to a WDBJ7 report, private funds laid the groundwork for the startup and the pricing structure is in discussion.

RIDE Solutions is a grant-funded Transportation Demand Management Agency that provides alternative transportation options around Virginia.

Northwest Bust

Not all bike shares are easy pedaling as evidenced by the news out of Seattle last month, when Mayor Ed Murray said more than $3 million previously slated for bike share will be used for bike and pedestrian infrastructure, according to Seattle Times.

The city had planned to bring in Quebec-based Bewegen’s electric bikes to replace Pronto, the city’s troubled bike share system. Ridership reportedly suffered under Pronto, the city failed to secure needed grants and the program faced an ethics investigation.

Pronto is scheduled to cease at the end of March, after which the city will have to spin on without a bike share system.

*Editor’s note 2/13/17: The source for Christine Ginsburg’s quote was inadvertently left out of the original post. We added the source and apologize for any inconvenience.

About the author

Larry Claflin, Jr.

Larry Claflin, Jr.

Columnist Larry Claflin, Jr., is a freelance writer based in New England and co-founder and former executive director of the non-profit Salem Jazz and Soul Festival. He is fascinated with the mechanics of city government and cultural development in cities.