Bicycling roundup #2: bike sharing
Revision from original, too long, entry.
1. Bicycle sharing and rebalancing. There are a bunch of articles out there about how maybe mathematicians can come up with some super duper algorithm to make systems self-balancing. See "Bike shares can be perfect!: Solving the commuting algorithm" from Salon and "Bringing Science to Bike Sharing" from Wired (2011). Right now, systems spend a lot of time and money via "operator intervention" to move the bikes around, to better meet demand.
I think this is a fools errand.
Bike sharing systems are transit, but they aren't mass transit. They are individualized transit, like a cab ride.
So you have all kinds of trips going to all kinds of places, albeit bounded by the footprint of the stations, but in a fashion that is unbalanced, i.e., many of the trips are commute trips--formerly conducted via transit--from residential areas to employment areas, without return trips.
Transit deals with imbalances this by using large vehicles. So on the reverse commute trip, the vehicles are lightly used, but because you only need to move one vehicle (bus) or 1 to 4 vehicles (light rail) or 6-8 vehicles (subway cars) with one person (driver/operator) it's not a big deal. Moving lots of empty bikes in the reverse commute direction is a big deal.
You need a truck, or lots of people. People talk about incentives, but it misses the mark because the issue isn't that you need incentives, what you need are people going in that direction and they aren't.
I don't see how it's solvable (under the constraints of the current footprint and number of bikes and docks).
A couple years worth of rebalancing at $700,000/year would buy a lot of additional bikes and docks.
Note that part of the problem in DC with rebalancing is that bike sharing presumes what we might call the "main" trip is done by transit, and the follow-on trip by bike. In DC, the longer trips are replaced by bike share, throwing the model out-of-kilter and making it unbalanced. Again, it's a math problem, but as long as the footprint and biking inventory are constrained in this particular fashion, it's not solvable by an algorithm or incentives.
3. The question we don't talk about much: supporting biking via bike sharing versus expecting people to buy their own bikes, but providing high quality bike parking and other facilities.
Even though I think bike sharing is cool and it raises the visibility of biking, I don't see how it makes sense economically.
It costs about $7,000 per bike for the initial infrastructure and set up of the system, and about $2,000 per bike to operate the system annually.
For example, the Toronto system isn't making money to cover operations, despite sponsorships, and needs money for a bailout. See "Toronto's Bixi boondoggle: Expecting bike-share to pay its own way may have doomed it" from the Toronto Star.
With a membership price of less than $100/year, and most members not racking up additional usage fees, most systems, except those experiencing a high degree of use by tourists, will not generate enough money in fees to cover the costs.
Note that at a fee of maybe $300/year (cost of a basic bike, but not maintenance), these kinds of systems may be able to break even. Other systems have various forms of sponsorship and/or include advertising on the kiosks, which generate additional monies--but not tons.
DC, by launching without selling sponsorships or advertising, probably missed its moment, because the value of association declines once this system is launched.
It makes more sense for people to buy bikes, and instead to invest a goodly amount of money in high quality bicycle parking, both publicly and privately.
People may counter and argue that all forms of mobility--walking, biking, motor vehicles, and transit--are subsidized and it's unreasonable to expect bike share to "pay its own way" when the other modes are not.
Considering the cost of buying and fitting the initial infrastructure for bike share, plus the replacement costs of bikes after 5-6 years, and maybe 10 years for the stations, maybe a greater ROI can be obtained from making different investments in biking, specifically facilities like parking, and a dedicated lane and trail network.
4. Bike share vs. car share as models in collaborative consumption. Alternatively, there is a lot of discussion about how great collaborative consumption is, that the bike share vehicles are used more intensively, etc., but it is the cost equation for bike share that makes the systems financially problematic.
With car share, you pay an initiation fee usually the first year--lower than for bike share--and if not (because of an incentive) you pay an annual fee each succeeding year, plus hourly fees of $8 to $15 for use of a car.
With bike share you pay an annual fee that doesn't come anywhere near the cost of covering operating the bike or paying towards the cost of the infrastructure.
Car share is more expensive than bike share, but the issue is the cost compared to owning and operating a car. The value proposition is very clear, so paying $10-$12/hour for the use of a car isn't that bad as opposed to the basic cost of $300 to $500/month for owning or leasing a car + the cost of insurance and basic maintenance, and then gas, considering that most of the time you "own" a car, it sits there unused. (Note that collaborative consumption is a form of fractional ownership without the ownership.)
By comparison, the cost of providing a bike sharing system versus the cost of the alternative (owning and operating a bike) is very much unbalanced.
To make it clear: it's expensive to own a car; it's cheap to own a bike.
Given that reality, it's worth reconsidering how we are investing money in supporting biking as transportation.
Maybe the cost of better using through sharing way more expensive resources (bike share) is too much compared to the cost of using cheap resources (individually owned bikes that aren't shared) less efficiently.
Color Me Blue," and responses, "Those Blue New York Bikes, to Love and to Hate."
Part of the complaint is that Citibank gets lots of brand exposure for not much money and does the Citibank blue begin to rebrand the City. But the other part is complaints about biking. Good response in Bike Snob ("What the Delia, Ephron?").