Why Isn’t Bike Sharing Working for the US?

New York’s Citi Bike has been plagued with problems almost since the start, which is a pity, because I felt a burst of affection every time I saw its distinctive blue bicycles waiting for customers when I got off the subway while in New York. There was something so cheerful and hopeful about them…but I couldn’t help but notice that I almost never saw anyone using them, and it didn’t surprise me to learn that the company was struggling to keep going, especially after a brutal winter that slashed ridership and caused severe damage to the bikes. But Citi Bike isn’t the only bike sharing service in the US that’s struggling: in fact, the concept seems to be having trouble catching on across the US in general.

In other countries, especially in Europe, bike sharing is widely used and very successful. So what’s the difference between, well, us and them? How come nations like Holland can get it together and encourage fledgling bike share programmes until they get off their feet (er, wheels?) and we can’t?

One of the most important issues, I’d argue, is simply the absence of a biking culture in the US. While there definitely are people who rely on bikes for their primary or preferred modes of transportation, and their ranks are growing, they’re still considered abnormal. There’s a very adversarial relationship between drivers and cyclists, and many people consider cycling as a primary mode of commuting, getting around, or just having fun to be very strange — cycling is regarded as a thing that weird, fitness-obsessed people do, not as a perfectly normal and unremarkable way of getting from place to place.

That’s reinforced by a transportation network that doesn’t favour bikes. We have few safe bike lanes, for example, and our public transit isn’t very bike-friendly. Bikes aren’t allowed on buses and trains during peak commute hours in some regions, for example, which kind of defeats the purpose of trying to integrate a bicycle into your commute. (And thanks to poor transit coverage, it’s often necessary to use a bicycle at some stage of your commute to get to work on time — you can’t afford to wait around for buses or a bus might not even head where you need to go.) Biking in the US can be extremely dangerous, which doesn’t exactly make it an appealing transit option to people who might be considering it as an alternative to taking a car.

Without a culture that supports and normalises biking, we’re not exactly creating a world where people have incentives to bike. Most attempts at encouraging cycling are small and institutionally-based, instead of being city-wide and focused on larger issues for cyclists. For example, I note that my Kaiser facility has bike parking for physicians and encourages them to bike to work, but pike parking for patients is harder to find…and the neighbourhood isn’t necessarily one that encourages people to bike in the first place, because the roads are narrow and the traffic is fast. If Oakland as a whole worked on becoming more bike-friendly, it would be safer for physicians, staff, and patients to bike to Kaiser, and that could create a real incentive to do so.

We also live in a culture that has a hard time adjusting to this whole ‘sharing’ concept. Car shares have been doing better in the past few years, illustrating that we’re capable of grasping the idea and using it to our advantage, but the market for car shares and bike shares is slightly different. Many of the people relying on car shares are actually members of bike and public transit culture, using car shares when they absolutely need a car (to haul home a big load from the store or pick up heavy furniture, for example) or want to take a little trip and can’t do it with public transit (sometimes friends from the City drive up to see me in a car share vehicle, for instance). Bike shares, on the other hand, are targeted at people who need to be willing to consider sharing a public resource that they don’t need all the time, and they’re wooing people away from cars, a tempting mode of transit for drivers who are highly accustomed to USian car culture.

The cycles provided as part of bike shares often aren’t terribly good, and they can be clunky rides. This creates yet another barrier to use, as the unpleasantness of the experience can drive people off. Riders can also have availability concerns, as documented with Citi Bike Share, where people routinely complain about bike stations being empty. This can be a big problem when you’re relying on a bike to get to the office or get home, and you can’t find one — suddenly, you’re stuck without transit, and you’re forced to take a cab or call a friend with a car. After a few misfires like that, you might be less inclined to take advantage of a bike share program, because you need it to be reliable in order for it to be functional for you.

There’s also less governmental support for bike sharing programmes — and some need such support in order to get off the ground. The initial investment can be high, as can perfecting the algorithms that make the system work. Those include making sure bikes are distributed properly, recruiting locals as well as tourists, and creating an incentive to buy a monthly or yearly pass to use the service. Furthermore, maintenance is critical, and it’s something that falls by the wayside with some bike share firms. No one wants to ride a bike that’s unsafe or difficult to ride because of maintenance problems, especially experienced cyclists, asnd that creates yet another barrier to success.

And sometimes, the problem is more mundane. Why didn’t I use a bike share while I was in New York? Because I hadn’t thought to bring my helmet with me, and Citi Bike Share doesn’t have helmet rental along with its cycles — and there’s no way I’m getting on a bike without protecting my brainbox.

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Photo: mandatory bike share vanishing point, Ika Ink, Flickr.