Bikes are green, but in the red

Bike share programmes are emerging and growing in cities across the world, with San Francisco—home of chinadialogue’s US office—set to launch one shortly. Guest blogger and Washington, DC resident Melody Wilson reports on the relative success of the city’s new Capital BikeShare, which has members, but continues to lose money. 

John Lisle, at the Washington, DC, Department of Transportation (DDOT), estimated that cyclists took about 250,000 rides in the first six months of Capital BikeShare’s launch in September 2010. In April 2011, more than 4,500 residents of America’s capital, Washington, DC, purchased a coupon for monthly or annual memberships with the area’s new bicycle share programme. The sales increased the number of existing members by more than 50% and saved a projected 1,500 to 2,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions annually.

An earlier programme in Washington, DC, called SmartBike, owned by communications firm Clear Channel, was the first of its kind in the country when it began in 2008. Lisle told chinadialogue that that programme wasn’t successful because it was prohibitively small; without enough convenient locations, it would never be useful to members.

If such a sharing programme is to be successful, it must be as large as possible and ease of use must be a priority, Lisle said. This is a conundrum, for without a large number of stations, the bikes will not be used, but opening more stations depends upon previous success.

Lisle stated that the goal of the new programme is to make biking and other alternatives to driving as easy and safe as possible. DDOT emphasises the convenience of the bikes, especially over cars. According to Lisle, bike rentals are particularly attractive to those who want to take short trips, but don’t want to worry about locking up and storing a bike of their own.

New bicyclists may rent the bikes by in half-hour increments, picking up one of 1,100 bikes at 110 stations in the DC area and returning them to any BikeShare rack with an empty spot.

Daniel Hoagland, of the Washington Area Bicycle Association (WABA), commented in an interview with chinadialogue, “BikeShare is incredible. It’s the best thing that ever happened to biking in DC. It takes away the barriers that new bicyclists face and makes the experience much easier.”

BikeShare isn’t necessarily for residents who can’t afford a bike; for a one-time ride, the rental service will authorise your credit card for US$101 (in case the bike goes missing) in addition to the applicable membership and usage fees, to be reimbursed a few days after rental.

After a user pays a membership fee, the first half hour is free. However, the user then begins incurring “usage fees” every half hour: It costs US$1.50 for 31 minutes to 60 minutes, another US$3 for the next 61 minutes to 90 minutes, and an additional US$6 for each additional 30 minutes after that. That means keeping a bike out for 24 hours could total US$70—more than renting a car!

Gin Armstrong, an employee at CityBikes, a local bicycle store, said that BikeShare’s presence has improved their business. Once residents use BikeShare and see how much easier it is to commute on a bike, they are much more willing to purchase one—especially once they get the bill for their rental. Customers don’t realise how expensive it is to rent the BikeShare bikes for an extended period of time, Armstrong commented, and regular users often find it is cheaper to buy.

Driving sales of bikes results in profits for local businesses and accomplishes DDOT’s mission of making biking a viable form of transportation. But for every sale, there is one less user of the BikeShare programme, making it increasingly less likely to reach financial sustainability.

The programme has established corporate memberships that provide partially or entirely free memberships to its employees. The League of American Bicyclists, various real estate development firms, the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the World Bank and Google are just a few partners BikeShare boasts.

DDOT is also pursuing advertising sources. However, arrangements would require a change in DC law, as advertising—the main form of revenue for most bike share programmes–is currently prohibited from any DDOT-related materials with the exception of bus shelters. Mayor Vincent Gray’s budget for fiscal year 2012 includes income from advertisements on bikes; but passing the budget would change the existing law.

To read more about efforts to improve bike infrastructure in both the United States and China, see Justin Gerdes’ article "A two-wheeled future?", written following a chinadialogue seminar on the issue in San Francisco.

Photo courtesy of James D Schwartz