My Other Bike is a Public Transportation System

What's wrong with bike-sharing?


Gas prices are higher than Snoop Dogg at Mardi Gras. Tiny carbon footprints are the tongue piercings of the new millenium. Even diehard carburetor-huggers must get tired of the endless cruising it takes to find a parking space in the average American metropolis these days. Together, these forces create, if not the perfect storm, then at least a pretty strong tailwind: There has never been a better time to be a bicycle advocate.

So how are the nation's pedal pushers capitalizing on this propitious moment? Increasingly, by championing high-tech bike-sharing, that stylish European import that posits one-size-fits-some equipment, strict time limits on usage, and mandatory drop-off points as the best way to make cycling seem like a more viable mode of urban transit to people reluctant to abandon the convenience of their automobiles. Washington, D.C. has a shiny new bike-sharing system. Temporary bike-sharing programs at the Democratic National Convention in Denver and the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis gave elected officials from both parties a convenient way to make their requisite green photos ops carbon neutral. San Francisco, New York, and Chicago are just a few of the major American cities contemplating bike-sharing systems of their own.

Paris is the inspiration for them all. In July 2007, it introduced a bike-sharing program called Velib. Compared to earlier bike-sharing efforts, which mostly consisted of making a fleet of low-end cruisers available to anybody who wanted to ride one around for an hour and then dump it in a lake, Velib is a more closely monitored system. The bikes are locked in automated, self-service docking stations around the city; to use one you must purchase a subscription and establish an account. Because Velib knows when you take out a bike and when you return it, and bills you accordingly, its bikes have been much less likely to end up in the Seine.

Funded by the advertising company JCDecaux NA in return for the right to sell ad space on bus shelters, the Velib system now includes over 20,000 bikes and 1,450 docking stations, with no more than 900 feet between one station and the next. It employs 400 people full-time, and users made 27.5 million trips during Velib's first year of operation. "We conceived of this as a public-transportation system, so it operates as one," JCDecaux NA president Bernard Parisot recently told Time magazine.

To the average alternative transportation professional, this sentiment must be pure rhetorical catnip. Private transportation, after all, is the enemy! It's selfish, inefficient, it's organized enough. To the average solo driver idling in his SUV, however, the idea that bikes represent a new kind of public transportation is no doubt less compelling. There's a reason he's idling in his SUV, and it's not because he's such a huge fan of buses, subway trains, streetcars, and ferries. With a car, he can go precisely where he wants to go. He can adjust his route on the fly. He may get stuck in traffic, he may be a slave to the parking gods, but even so, his SUV gives him a strong sense of autonomy.

A bike delivers a strong sense of autonomy, too—stronger even than a car in many ways. It doesn't, for example, require a license, registration, insurance. You aren't beholden to routes or schedules. You go where you want, when you want. Unless the bike you're riding is part of a bike-sharing program. Then your usage is more proscribed. Take, for example, SmartBike D.C., America's first high-tech bike-sharing program. Launched in August, and, like Velib, funded by an advertising company (Clear Channel Outdoor in this case) in return for the right to advertise on the city's bus shelters, the program currently consists of 120 bikes and ten docking stations, all of which are clustered within a relatively small radius downtown.

For a $40 annual fee, users get a smart card that allows them to unlock a bike from its docking station and start contributing to America's energy independence. For three hours, that is—if you keep a bike out longer than that, you may get banned from the program. You're also not allowed to ride outside city limits or between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., when the program shuts down for the night. All in all, there are 13 clauses and 34 sub-clauses in the SmartBike user agreement. Can't you just feel the freedom and convenience of bike-sharing blowing against your face like a warm summer breeze?

Of course, in giving up some of the autonomy you'd enjoy if you simply rode your own bike, you get other significant benefits in return, right? Well, someday perhaps. One thing that makes bike-sharing programs attractive, in theory at least, is that the bikes aren't yours. Bike theft is rampant pretty much everywhere there are bikes, and secure places to lock your trusty steed, especially for hours at a time, are exceedingly rare.

Offloading the risk of theft to a bike-sharing program makes sense—but in the case of SmartBike D.C., there's only so much risk you can offload. When a bike is safely locked in a docking station, you aren't responsible for anything that happens to it. Unlike Paris, however, D.C.'s docking stations are far from ubiquitous and aren't likely to achieve that state any time soon. (And even in Paris, bike theft remains a problem. Approximately 3000 Velib bikes were stolen and another 3000 vandalized during the program's first year of operation—some Velib bikes have reportedly been spotted as far away as Casablanca.)

In the case of SmartBike, if you want to run an errand in a part of the city where there are no official docking stations—aka most parts of the city—you assume the liability when you lock up the bike. If someone steals it on your watch, you owe SmartBike $550. If someone vandalizes it, you owe SmartBike however much it decides to charge you for the necessary repairs.

In other words, it's like you own the bike, except you don't. You're not permitted to let someone else ride it. You're not permitted to put too much stuff in the front basket. (The baskets are for "light goods" only.) You aren't supposed to ride it in "inclement and dangerous weather." You have to return it to very specific places at very specific times. If something on your bike breaks while you're riding it, you aren't supposed to take it to the nearest bike shop or attempt to make the repair yourself. Instead, you have to call SmartBike's customer service line and wait for a repair person to respond to your request for help. At least when a bus breaks down, you can abandon ship and take destiny in your own hands.

Of course, SmartBike is still in its infancy. As it adds more docking stations, its rules and disclaimers will become less objectionable. But if a bike-sharing program's utility mostly lies in how much secure parking it offers—and it does—why bother with the bikes? And the sharing? Let users be responsible for obtaining their own bikes—that's the simple part of the solution. Let them enjoy the autonomy and flexibility that comes with ownership. Install enough reliably secure bike parking facilities around a city and the users will come, no perky commie three-speeds necessary. Without fleets of collectively shared vehicles, the bikes-are-public-transportation conceit fades, but is that really such a bad thing? For people reluctant to abandon the convenience and familiarity of their automobiles, "It's like a car, only better" is a much more persuasive proposition than "It's like a bus, only worse."

Contributing Editor Greg Beato is a writer living in San Francisco. Read his reason archive here.