Connecting state and local government leaders

What’s the End Game for Bikeshare in America’s Cities?

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Connecting state and local government leaders

“What today’s bike sharing players must understand is that it takes a true, dedicated partnership between cities and providers to ensure bike sharing thrives,” according to the co-founder and CEO of Zagster.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Since the early 1990s, there has been a concerted effort to rejuvenate America’s city centers, and in particular, special attention has been paid to urban transportation systems. And in recent years, bike sharing has come to play a critical role in this revival, with tech entrepreneurs and investors of all sizes stampeding in to satiate the revived appetite for bikes across America. At the same time, many people are questioning whether or not the newly minted “dockless” bike share model—which took China by storm over the past few years— actually makes sense for American cities.

Not Uber for Bikes

There's a prevailing mindset in startup and tech circles that the best way to disrupt established markets is to ask for forgiveness rather than permission. With Uber and Lyft taking over city streets, and Airbnb throwing a wrench in the home rental and hospitality markets, this cavalier approach has become widely accepted. Yet the ramifications of this approach are far greater in the bike share space given how quickly bikes can litter the streetscape, impede rights of way, and conflict with, rather than complement, public transit systems. Even still, many bike sharing startups backed by venture capital, having accurately recognized the business opportunity in bike sharing—the opportunity to build a hyperlocal, last-mile transit solution with increasingly high demand—are flooding American cities with unproven bike share systems.

It’s no surprise that there have been some hiccups—both big and small—along the way.  

The Don’ts

Completely station-based systems are inherently inflexible and exceedingly expensive, meaning that private budget often dictates the distribution potential of a proven public good. This style of bike share requires tremendous capital up front—not only for the bikes themselves, but also for the infrastructure needed to make them available—and incurs enormous operating costs. As a result, these systems require massive public subsidies to remain viable. And as costs are passed to riders and taxpayers, adoption in dock-based bike shares is greatly inhibited, limited to the wealthy (those with credit cards and smart phones) as well as those fortunate enough to live or work near bike share stations.   

Success in these scenarios comes at a clear, high cost. Washington, D.C.—home to Capital Bikeshare, a decade-old system considered one of the strongest dock-based programs in the nation—doles out more than $1.5 million a year from its general fund for its celebrated program, even though riders cover three-quarters of the cost. Some beleaguered dock-based programs, like Pronto in Seattle, have even shuttered entirely due to underfunding and underuse.

On the other extreme, the new “completely dockless” or free-floating bike share models pose their own problems. Though these services are significantly cheaper to cities and riders, the ability to leave bikes anywhere is as great a risk to cities as it is a benefit to riders. With no mechanism to ensure safe and lawful parking, these bikes sprawl haphazardly across sidewalks, streets, car parking spaces, public park lawns, trees and landscaping.

Furthermore, completely dockless providers, running the “ask for forgiveness” playbook, have a tendency to “drop bikes” and seek permission and permits later, a strategy that has, time and time again, left a bad taste in the mouths of city officials and policy makers, the exact people bike share players should be supporting. While it’s easy for companies to scatter 300 bikes across a city, it is nearly impossible for a city to keep those bikes and riders in check. Consider what might happen when 300 bikes becomes 3,000 or even 30,000.

The Do’s

Despite the surge in news coverage lately, bike sharing is not a totally novel concept. A decade’s worth of bike share experience has surfaced repeatable steps that must be taken to ensure any given program’s success:

Early groundwork. Not every community is ready for bike sharing, something new bike share players consistently overlook in seeking quick market wins. In an ideal scenario, every city would have countless miles of protected bike lanes, dedicated bike paths, and thousands of well-placed public bike racks; a thriving bike community that continuously educates riders (and drivers) about cycling rules and safety; and roads devoid of potholes, loose gravel and other hazards. More often than not, however, bike shares don’t have the luxury of rolling out into those conditions. Therefore, it is essential that bike share providers help to prime a given community for the new service to ensure bike sharing debuts in a favorable environment for it to take root  immediately and thrive long term.

Real partnerships: This groundwork and continued success of bike sharing cannot happen without real, mutually beneficial community partnerships. Bike share providers must engage not only government officials, but also transit organizations, local businesses and community members early and often to understand and adequately address their needs when it comes to biking and bike sharing. Where one city might lack infrastructure, another might lack a strong cycling culture  and general bike knowledge. A true bike share partner will use its resources to fill gaps wherever they might be to ensure the success of its program for the city and its constituents.

Continuous flexibility. As a transportation method, bike sharing is unique—and valuable— among its peers for its ability to change quickly and relatively inexpensively. Meaningful, sustainable relationships with cities will require that bike share providers constantly evolve and change with cities as their priorities, geographies, and citizenries change. In many cases, this will mean a combination of updated bike share services (more bikes, expanded bike parking options, etc.) and/or increased investment in bike infrastructure and education.

What today’s bike sharing players must understand is that it takes a true, dedicated partnership between cities and providers to ensure bike sharing thrives. Simply flooding cities with roving, unchecked bikes while eschewing any effort to integrate bike sharing into the fabric of communities will not result in vibrant, sustainable bike shares  Instead, serious bike share providers should aim to fill the gaps in current public transportation systems. These gaps are bigger than one would think, and are different for every city, meaning that bike share companies that do it right are in a prime position to make a lasting impact anywhere they roll.

Tim Ericson is CEO and co-founder of Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Zagster, which provides public and public/private bikeshare systems.

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