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Jan Lee headshot

People for Bikes Sponsored Series

The Business Of Biking

Why Cities are Supporting Bike Sharing Programs

Words by Jan Lee

It’s no surprise that city bike sharing programs have exploded in popularity the last decade. Accessibility and affordability have helped to promote the concept of a short-term bike rental system as a win-win for just about anyone who is willing to ditch the use of a car for a bike. Commuters can leave the stress of congested downtown traffic at the car park. Tourists can enjoy meandering without having to hassle with multiple bus transfers, taxi fares and sore feet. And Mother Nature gets the benefit of a little bit less smog after a weekday commute.

But what is in it for the city? What is it that is propelling cities all across the globe to adopt bike sharing programs as a reliable way to enhance its intercity transportation systems?

To answer those questions, we looked at Seattle, the Northwest U.S.’s largest metropolitan city and the most recent to adopt bike sharing.

Seattle, which has garnered many acknowledgements over the years for its efforts to support sustainability, has a reputation for promoting cutting-edge transportation options. Its regional bus system, rail and private car sharing systems mesh almost seamlessly with intra-city services, making it about as painless as possible for commuters to leave their cars at home. Attractively redesigned waterfront areas, good signage and streamlined traffic control keep traffic jams to a minimum.

“We do encourage a variety of options for mobility for transportation for getting around the city,” Tom Rasmussen said, who serves on the Seattle City Council and as the chair to the city’s transportation committee. He said it not only makes getting around a large city like Seattle more convenient, but it’s good exercise for those who use the program.

A study by Portland State University’s urban planning school (funded by Oregon Department of Transportation) found that bicycle commuters win out over those who drive, take the bus or walk when it comes to encouraging happiness. And, as doctors have been telling us for ages, exercise contributes to how we feel about life.

Having a convenient bike sharing program in the city that meshes with other forms of transportation just makes sense, said Rasmussen. “I think it is important for the bikes to be convenient to major transit sites, major transit hubs and bus stops.”

Earlier this month, Seattle’s city council overwhelmingly approved the passage of an ordinance and a referendum that would make it possible for the privately run bike sharing program Puget Sound Bike Share to launch its services in Seattle. PSBS Executive Director Holly Houser said that the nonprofit is planning to launch with 500 bikes and solar-powered bike stations in Seattle next spring, and hopefully grow with several independent satellite bike stations in adjoining cities in the next few years.

According to Houser, bike sharing programs benefit not only the users but the city or community as a whole.

“It’s sustainable, and we really see it changing the landscape of bicycling in the Seattle area,” said Houser, who notes that bike sharing stations help to create and enhance communities of people, which in turn, increases safety in neighborhoods.

Although it may not be a primary motivator for city bike sharing programs, Houser said that cities like Seattle, which benefits substantially as a tourist destination, benefits from having a good bike sharing program that both residents and visitors can use.

“(Bike sharing) is sort of a tourist attraction in itself. You see (bike sharing) systems have become very iconic in the cities that they are in. I mean, I would go to New York just to check out their bike share system.”

Plus, convenient transportation systems make it easier for tourists to get around, which means they are more likely to spend money during their vacations.

Although the PSBS program was launched with both federal and state grants, the program is designed to be managed privately and funded largely by corporate sponsors, such as Seattle Children’s Hospital, which committed $500,000 toward the expense of riding helmets. A privately run and privately funded program means less overhead for the city in implementing more transportation options.

New York City also launched a privately run program earlier this year. Citi Bike manages 6,000 bikes distributed over 350 docking stations and is so far one of the largest bike sharing operations in the country. Citigroup contributed $41 million to launch the program, and received more than 20,000 users by the third day of registration. In a metropolitan area like New York, the benefits of a well-oiled, privately funded bike sharing program can make a difference to intercity congestion.

And Mexico City knows all about the benefits of reducing congestion in intercity transit. The capital of Mexico is ringed by mountain ranges and has been battling dangerous levels of smog congestion for decades. Reducing traffic congestion doesn’t just benefit the inhabitants’ health, it reduces strain on government health programs, traffic control, and of course, the country’s carbon footprint. But how do you promote a bike sharing program in a country with a vast disparity in income levels and a sprawling geography?

The government-sponsored program, Ecobici, operates on a flexible membership program with a nominal cost for bike usage. Users can purchase a membership for anywhere from 24 hours (less than US $7) to a year ($32), and then pay for incremental use. The first 45 minutes of use per trip is free, and a two-hour trip costs less than $3. Membership fees are structured to encourage, not discourage, repeat trips.

As many as 500 communities across the globe (some of which are trackable by this new online tool) have now signed on to bike sharing programs. Rasmussen points out that it’s not just large metropolitan areas like Seattle, Mexico, New York and Paris that are benefiting from bike sharing. Aspen, Colo. (population 7,000) installed a bike share program earlier this summer. Aspen’s $500,000 system, which provides for 100 bikes, is supported by a partnership of public and private donors.

“Even in (smaller communities) like Aspen, they are trying it as well,” said Rasmussen.

Image of Rome, Italy bike sharing kiosk and map courtesy of Luca F.

Image of cyclists during Bay Area Bike Share launch, San Jose, Calif. courtesy of Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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