Bike Sharing Programs: Are They A Catch-22?

Bike share programs have been around longer than you think. In 1998, Rennes, France launched the first city-scaled bike share program. To add to the list, in 2008, Washington D.C. debuted the first bike share program in the U.S. Naturally, New York City joined the movement and launched a 6,000 bike program with $0 in public funding.  As bike sharing gradually became the norm as a form of transportation – more and more cities followed suit.


Bike Sharing: The Good and The Bad

Like most forms of transportation, bike sharing programs have a variety of positives and a variety of negatives. For urban areas, bike sharing programs are ideal. With traffic congestion, long commutes, having to deal with transit switches, and no longer needing a car to get around the city, bike sharing has been an affordable and accessible form of transportation. Bike sharing programs are gaining popularity in major cities like: Barcelona, Mexico City, Montreal, NYC, Paris, and Rio de Janeiro. According to the New York City-based Institute for Transportation and Development, over 600 cities utilize bike sharing programs and deploy over 6,000 bikes, making it apparent that the programs are continuing to gain popularity. Being able to quickly “check-out” a bike with your pre-purchased membership card allows riders to easily access transportation.


But exactly how will users be billed for their usage? Easy. Billing is calculated when riders get to the next bike share session. Simple, efficient, and affordable – bike sharing adds major value to mobility. With the programs, riders no longer need to own their own, maintain, or even store their bike. For those that live in apartment complexes and other rental properties, the program eliminates the need for small unit bike storage.

Although bike sharing has made a positive impact in our communities and cities, it’s not fully a win-win.

It’s a catch-22.

For many programs, cities or private operators only offer pilot programs, which means the bike routes and share sessions are not as accessible for riders. Limited pilot programs lead to a lack of users and a lack of desire to expand routes. No one is actually going to use the program if they can’t efficiently get to their destination because of a lack of stations or lack of bikes.


“A quality system needs 10-16 stations for every square kilometer, providing an average spacing of approximately 300 meters between stations and a convenient walking distance from each station to any point in between.” For every 1000 residents, there should be 10-30 bikes available for the program, especially for urban areas where they need to be accessible for both residents and commuters.

For Seattle, bike sharing died. The City of Seattle announced this past January that the program will inevitably end at the end of March due to a “redirection of funds into new infrastructure improvements”. Although the end of public bike share wasn’t all that shocking since it was slated to end at the end of Q1, the mayor did mention he will “leave the door open to the possibility of the city hosting a private or partly private system”. Seems promising, however, there’s a variety of factors that could make or break bringing the bike sharing program back to the city, such as the number of bikes, bike share stations, as well as funding.


On the contrary, there are cities like Portland, for example, that have seen incredible utilization. Since the launch of Portland’s Biketown bike rental program in July, there has been more than 38,000 users and they have taken over 160,000 rides. Talk about great results! The program, which was developed with $2 million in federal grant money, has gained major popularity — however, it is no longer funded by the government. According to the Portland Bureau of Transportation, of the “tourists using Biketown, 71 percent said they used the system to reach shopping destinations or restaurants, and 69 percent of local users said they were more likely to patronize businesses near a station”.

Bike sharing programs are continuing to gain popularity, especially in urban areas. For the programs to survive, they need full support from the city. Without proper funding, bikes, share stations, and overall awareness, bike rental programs are working with a lose-lose situation. Before the wheels hit the pavement, it’s important for cities to completely back the programs — because without their help, they might never succeed.