zimmerman_1_300With catchy brand names that often provide clues to their locales—Capital Bikeshare, DecoBike, Vélib’, Cabi, Barclays Cycle Hire, Dublin Bikes, Ecobici, Hangzou Public Bikes, or Yellow Bike Sushou—bike-sharing systems have been gaining traction as a true global transportation phenomenon. With origins dating to the oil embargo of the 1970s, bike sharing only in the past decade has seen its reach extend beyond western Europe.

In 2002, bike sharing was limited to five European countries: Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, and Portugal. The total number of bikes hovered at 4,000, about half of which were within the city limits of Copenhagen. By early 2011, growth had soared to 236,000 bicycles in 33 countries, according to the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development. Though Europe still claims 90 percent of city fleets, its share of total bikes in use has dropped to about 50 percent.

Bike-sharing systems have distinct competitive advantages over cars in expensive, high-density cities like Paris, where the hassle of owning, insuring, parking, and fueling a vehicle is daunting. Bike sharing also fills the first-mile/last-mile gap by linking transit stops to final destinations that otherwise might be too distant to walk to or not feasible to reach by car.

“This is not simply another way to bike, but rather a 21st-century form of public transportation,” says Eric Britton, an American-born economist and transportation analyst living in Paris. “Think of them as tiny transit vehicles. With the flick of a credit card or the tap of an iPhone, you can pick up a bike where you want, when you want, cycle to within a block or so of your final destination, and then lock it securely to a docking station.”

In addition to being available at rock-bottom rates, bicycles are a mode of choice if users want to claim a small carbon footprint, capture a chunk of urban streetscape from motorized four-wheeled rivals, or simply experience the pleasure of casually pedaling along roadside bike lanes, off-road cycle tracks, or parkways.

A pioneer in bike sharing, Paris offers
competing brands, including Vélib

The Vélib’ system in Paris was a pioneer in bike sharing (though a Chinese city, Hangzhou, claims to have the largest fleet—Hangzhou Public Bicycle with 60,000 bicycles). In central Paris, one rarely needs to go farther than a few blocks to locate a credit card station with 30 or 40 bicycle docks. Daily use runs as high as 120,000 riders, and 20,600 bikes are available at more than 1,400 stations. Both Paris and France’s second-largest city, Lyon, count an impressive 10 percent of the resident population as paid subscribers to their bike-share systems.

These systems can also be found in smaller European cities. In Austria, where 84 bike-sharing systems operate, locations vary from the tourist-­oriented Nextbike-Burgenland fleet, which operates in nine towns surrounding a national park, to hamlets that can get by with only one bicycle terminal at the railroad station.

The distinct advantages of state-of-the-art, third-generation systems lie in their details. Most previous systems relied on coin deposits, but credit card payments, smartphone apps, and user-friendly kiosks make renting a bike no more complicated than using an ATM. Whereas second-generation systems had fixed docking stations taking as long as six months to install, third-generation stations are solar powered, allowing docks to be relocated overnight by mobile crews to meet constantly changing demand. Fees are typically charged for 24-hour, weekly, or monthly use, or paid in annual subscriptions. But the greatest percentage of use is at the free rate—under 30 minutes—which is enough time for one or two quick trips. This implies that docks must be closely spaced to be effective.

Users can take bikes for short spins without charge, or buy a
long-term subscription and gain access through the swipe of
a card such as that used by Vélov

Twenty-six third-generation systems can be found in North American cities large and small, and scores more are in the planning stage. Portions of the largest system—New York City’s Citi Bike, with 10,000 bikes at 600 stations—were launched during the same week in July as the system in Charlotte, North Carolina, B-Cycle, with 200 bikes and 20 stations. The locations of other city fleets range from Montreal to Des Moines, Iowa. In Washington, D.C., and its northern Virginia suburb Arlington, Capital Bikeshare offers more than 165 stations and a fleet surpassing 1,500 bikes. Second-year counts released in 2011 reflected a surprisingly high 18,000 annual members and 1 million trips, far exceeding original 2010 projections of 8,000 members and 500,000 trips. As was the case with Vélib’, an early surge and the attendant positive publicity has fundamentally altered the D.C. public’s perception of bicycling, taking it from a fringe activity to a mainstream one.

Capital Bikeshare’s success can be attributed to many factors. Seed money came relatively quickly. As in Paris, high residential and work densities, mixed-use land development, and a heavily used subway and bus system laid a framework supportive of bicycling. Both cities, which learned from difficulties they experienced with earlier attempts, have large numbers of cosmopolitan, affluent, eco-conscious users—as well as hordes of tourists and ­conventioneers—attracted to bike sharing. Sophisticated public relations and promotional efforts have also been crucial ingredients of Capital Bikeshare’s success.

Hangzhou, China, claims the largest fleet
of shared bikes.

Not to be overlooked is the impression conveyed to passersby upon discovering a gleaming red two-wheeled platoon poised for service along many of the broad D.C. avenues laid out by Pierre L’Enfant. Theft in D.C is discouraged by bicycle design: the bikes have no exposed fasteners and cannot be disassembled with conventional tools. And users have a mighty incentive to return their rented wheels: each time a bike is rented, a credit card advance payment of several hundred dollars is held in escrow until the bike is returned to the dock.

Although 2.2 percent of D.C. residents biked to work in 2009, bicycle commutes in most cities rarely exceed 1 percent of the total number of trips per day. Will American commuters soon step away from their cars and warm to the shared travel modes of Paris, Lyon, or Barcelona? They may, but in smaller numbers.

In the United States, other than the largest, most dense, and transit-diverse cities, bicycling is subject to an ­automobile-centric culture that makes it unsafe in both real and perceived terms. High-quality design solutions, such as the urban cycle tracks commonplace in Europe, are practically nonexistent, as is basic training in elements of proper and legal street etiquette for all road and sidewalk users.

Washington, D.C.’s, Capital Bikeshare is popular
with tourists and commuters.

A comprehensive, sustained strategy that recalibrates all traffic modes is needed. The streetscape itself needs to be ­reinvigorated, especially in newer suburban contexts, as a place-making resource—an initiative that could take a decade or longer to achieve, even if pursued full throttle. Nevertheless, bike-sharing systems have their merits in the short term, especially as pilot projects or public relations efforts to build public confidence in bicycling for its ecofriendly and health-promoting benefits.

The European experience has demonstrated that real success is best measured in the travel choices people make. Scenarios to change an automobile-centered culture imply dramatically higher levels of long-term investment in all forms of public transportation. Disincentives designed to radically restrict free parking for the private auto, coupled with creative promotional campaigns targeted to shift transportation behavior away from auto dependency, are necessary—and are already in place in a few U.S. cities via innovative transportation demand programs. It is within such a comprehensive, long-term framework that bike sharing can ultimately fulfill the role it deserves.