It was the nation’s first bikeshare program when it started in 2010, a mere seven years ago. Since then, the Washington, D.C. area’s Capital Bikeshare has become one of the country’s largest and most successful, spanning five jurisdictions that reach across the Potomac River into Virginia, with more geographic expansion set for 2018.
Membership has climbed another 10.5 percent in the past year, and is now more than 32,000 people. Since the program first began, it has logged over 18 million rides.
That’s the picture nationally as well. Yearly bike trips have skyrocketed from 300,000 in 2010 to nearly 30 million in 2016, according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials. The latest figures from bikesharingmap.com list 192 bikeshare programs in some 175 U.S. municipalities. Eighty-two of those programs started in 2017 alone, says map curator Russell Meddin. By comparison, there were only six bikeshare programs in the whole country in 2010.
“Bikeshare has gone from a slow moving, heavily regulated government program to one of the country’s fastest moving tech investments, from a single-player monopoly to a multi-player marketplace,” notes Ryan Rzepecki, the CEO and founder of Social Bicycles, which runs Jump, a bikeshare program that uses pedal-assisted electric bikes.
Now just as it’s getting up to speed, an industry that is barely a decade old is undergoing a disruptive innovation that could propel it to even greater popularity or muddy the playing field.
A couple of months ago, silver bikes with bright orange wheel rims began appearing around Washington, D.C. One here and one there, like someone had left their new toy unattended while they ran inside to grab a cup of coffee. These are Mobikes, one of four companies (two of which are Chinese) that are pushing the dockless bikesharing phenomenon in the nation’s capital. Unlike the traditional systems that require users to pick up a bike at a fixed station and drop it off at another station at their destination, dockless bikes have a rear-wheel horseshoe locking system allows riders to park the bikes anywhere they want, essentially a car2go for bikes. The GPS-enabled bikes are usually unlocked with two taps on a smart phone app.
There’s a lot of money in these [dockless] bikeshare companies,” says Tom Fucoloro, who writes the Seattle Bike Blog. “Ultimately, they’re making a beautiful gamble, a big bet that they will essentially change the way urban transportation happens in an extremely healthy and environmentally friendly way.”
For the typical cash-starved municipality, the crucial, highly-seductive difference is cost. Dockless bikeshare companies, funded by an ever-expanding pool of venture capital, cover their own expenses and cost cities virtually nothing. Station-based bikeshares, on the other hand, require capital outlays in the millions of dollars, not just for the bikes, which can cost up to several thousand dollars each, but for expensive docking stations and a fleet of vans to “rebalance” bike inventories when the stations are left empty by morning commuters.
Although there are federal and state grants and corporate sponsors — Independence Blue Cross, which helped fund Philadelphia’s Indego bike program, and Citibank, which paid $41 million to be the lead sponsor of New York’s Citibike — the price to a city’s treasury can still be substantial. It costs Washington, D.C. some $7 million to operate its bikeshare program annually, although 80 percent of that comes back to the city coffers through membership dues, usage fees and advertising revenue.
The dockless phenomenon, driven by two Chinese companies, ofo and Mobike, with a combined valuation of $4 billion, and a handful of domestic players, only started in the United States this year. And it comes just as the traditional bikesharing industry is in the midst of its own explosive growth curve.
Successful programs have at least two prerequisites: a safe space to ride, which usually means a network of bike lanes, and density, which means there’s a bike station both where you are and where you’re going.
Dockless bike programs also require a critical mass of bikes and well-developed biking infrastructure to succeed. But while enticing in their simplicity — develop an app, place bikes strategically throughout a city, and let the rides begin — they come with at least two potential headaches.
Dockless bike operators like to go for a quick-hit capture of a large share of the market by flooding a city with bikes, something that can only be done if their cost is kept to a minimum. Cheaper bikes, however, can result in maintenance and safety issues. And because riders can leave them anywhere, including the middle of public right of ways, there has to be clear incentives about where to park them to avoid what Keith Rawls, the executive director of Birmingham, Alabama’s ZYP bikeshare program, describes as a “spaghetti-like mass of bikes parked next to a pristine building downtown.”
The ultimate winner in the dock v. dockless battle may not emerge for years (or the two could harmoniously co-exist.). But bikeshare proponents still have enough of a track record to draw some useful conclusions about best practices. Here are four cities (and one region) that have lessons to share.
Seattle: Failure is an option
Seattle holds the distinction of being the first major bike share program in the country to fail, a victim of too few docking stations spaced too far apart, a cumbersome helmet law, and ultimately, a lack of political will.
But over the summer, this bike-friendly city’s bike share program rose from the ashes, albeit with a twist: It’s now the only major U.S. city with a dockless-only program. So far, it’s a runaway success, with an average of more than two and a half rides per bike per day compared to just 0.7 rides per bike under the old, station-based system.
Seattle’s dockless program started in July, and very quickly ramped up to three companies, LimeBike, Spin and Ofo, offering a total of 7,000 bikes, with an average trip length of 2.5 miles.
Birmingham, Alabama: Sweating the details
Now in its third year, Birmingham’s Zyp bikeshare program has 400 bikes and 40 bike stations. “Being in the southeast, the stigma of using a bus, let alone a bike, is still palpable,” notes Zyp’s executive director, Keith Rawls, referring to a common perception in communities of color that taking the bus or riding a bike is for people who can’t afford to buy a car. “We’re coming out of that here, more so than any place I’ve seen.”
One thing that helps is Zyp’s fleet of more than 100 e-bikes, or pedal-assist electric bikes, which cruise along at about the same speed as an automobile in city traffic. That also means you can ride in the summer and show up at work relatively unscathed by Birmingham’s sweltering humidity. And though it’s electric, there’s still a cardio bonus. “You engage the motor by pedaling,” explains Rawls. “And people tend to ride longer, which keeps their heart rate up longer. But you don’t feel as taxed.”
Western Massachusetts’s Pioneer Valley plans to start a regional bike share program next spring that will cover a 140-square-mile area, reaching 300,000 people in five cities. Like Birmingham, the bikes will all be pedal-assist, which, says one bike advocate, has intangible psychological benefits beyond just the traffic reduction: “You feel like an animal, because you’re crushing it at 20 miles per hour up a hill.”
Philadelphia: Price is right
“People don’t choose a bike because it’s the most environmentally friendly, they generally choose it cause it’s cheap and reliable,” says Aaron Ritz, who works in the city of Philadelphia’s Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Systems.
Philadelphia has a large percentage of low-income residents and a majority of people of color, so there’s been a huge emphasis on making sure Indego, which now has 120 stations and 1,200 bikes, is not just a plaything of young, white hipsters who live in a narrow geographic range.
And the city has had some success, with the percentage of black monthly pass holders jumping from 8 percent of the total to 19 percent from 2015 to 2016.
To do that, Ritz says, the program made sure there were bike share stations in poorer neighborhoods, used real Philadelphians in its advertising campaigns and brought local community advocates into the decision-making process. “This is not a smile and a nod,” says Ritz, “but a chance to help develop the programming we use, where the stations are placed, to really be invested in bikeshare.”
People who can’t pay with a credit or debit card (or simply prefer not to), can pay in cash at a 7-Eleven or Family Dollar store or CVS. And for people with a food stamp or Medicaid benefit card, the bikeshare program costs just $5 a month.
Pittsburgh: The only thing better than cheap is free.
Pittsburgh’s Healthy Ride bikesharing system, which has 20 stations and 200 bikes, has come up with another way to break down the demographic barriers common to bikeshare programs.
People who have the local transit agency smart card, known as a ConnectCard, can tap their card on the bike’s keypad and ride for 15 minutes for free, allowing someone to ride an additional mile or two.
“People of color and low-income people do not use bike share at the same rates as higher income and white residents do,” says Healthy Ride executive director David White. “To me, what we’ve done with this program is a big step forward in addressing equity in bike share.