Archive for May, 2012

Bike Sharing Needs to be Subsidized?


[Re: Announcement from New York City: Citibank Paying $41 million for 10,000 shared bikes at 600 stations.  This saves NYC taxpayers, since bike sharing usually is subsidized by local government.  This was posted first to Transportation Nation]

As a former carshare entrepreneur, I find the bikesharing business model strange. First, the subsidies (although I have noted that NYC’s new service is not subsidized). Second the backloading of fees, the opposite of almost any other rental business, including bike rentals. And finally, the confusion over access fees and use fees. The ones in Ottawa have the access fee shown in large type, and the regressive use fees in smaller type.

The recent addition of long-term access fees provide 45-min free use, and short-term (tourist) only 30-minutes, seem to show that tourists are the ones that are paying a lot of the costs: they are the ones that want a bike for a half day (12 hrs), and they think that will pay only $7 (the one-day access fee) for it, not the $7 plus $152.25 usage fee that will appear on their credit card statement when they return home several days later.

The tourist would use this long-term seamless access because they want to enjoy the extensive pathway system, while the bike stations are limited to the core of the national capital (across the Ottawa River in two provinces). The system doesn’t have stations at the two museums further out, so visitors to these cannot “stop the clock” when they are inside.

And finally, the bikes are large and heavy, as has been pointed out (44 lbs vs. 25 for a regular bike). If you want to rent a lighter bike for more reasonable long periods, why is the information on finding these businesses not posted at the rental sites or on-line? These operators also have specialized bikes (tandems, road bikes, mountain bikes), trailers, and helmets. The use fees should be called “over-due fines.”

I suspect that much of the need for subsidies comes from the rate structure and success attracting commuters — a significant selling point to cities trying to reduce car-use at peak hour. The free front-end use period induces commuter use that increases demand for bikes but only at peak periods, and results in mal-distributed fleets requiring special trucks to relocate them. It also creates the problem of users not finding a “docking” space when/where they want to end their trip, causing the user time and grief looking for another nearby station.

And where do these peak-hour commuters really come from? Probably from the ranks of walking, transit, and owned-bike commuters, since the distances the service is practical for are shorter than most owned-car commutes.

[One NYC activist has pointed out that the parking “stations” for these bikes — the only place to park them, as no locks are provided to park them anywhere else — are all busy sidewalks.   This not only makes walking harder, but reduces the number of prime vending spaces for street merchants, of which NYC has many thousands.  If bikes are good by taking the PLACE of cars, then they should, when parked, take the SPACE of cars.  And no helmets are provided, since that would not conform to public health practices.]