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.

NEXT: "Sort of like a community organizer, except you have actual responsibilities"

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  1. It's too early in the morning for all these metaphors.

  2. How long until it becomes a human right to have a bike and thus the need for universal bike ownership through this program?

    Surely companies could earn a windfall profit if everyone was forced to buy a membership and the rich subsidized the poor!

  3. "Paris is the inspiration for them all."


    they've been doing that in copenhagen since the mid nineties. Hell, rockin Billy C got a city bike when he visited in 1997.

  4. As someone that rides their bike for my main mode of transport, the single best thing a city can do to make bike riding more viable is to provide (allow the construction or build and charge a fee) a secure place to lock to your bike (bike lockers are the best AND people are willing to pay for them) and allow bikes on public transit (Portland does this). Both would substantially increase bike ridership with no cost.

  5. I think Vienna had a system like this before Paris, but it could have been around the same time, I guess.

    Also, Greg is right on the business model side of things with having customers pay for their own bikes. There are issues, of course. I would think that you can take even more stress out of it by having a company that sells bikes with bike-maintenence packages, insurance, and parking all in one plan. Take the stress out of people having to choose a bike and figure out if it's safe. Just pay a monthly fee and you can park in a secure lot, be insured, and be sure that there's someone who can fix the bike if there's a problem. Americans like paying for services in advance of anticipation that one day they'll need to use them (prepaid cell phones for the car and product replacement plans, for example)

  6. At my university (Carnegie Mellon) they tried something like this, except they had no one to moderate or control the system. The tags that were meant to locate the bikes were found and removed, the bikes all broken or gone in less than a week.

    To quote the school's paper, "That was like the best-worst idea ever".

    To make cycling effective and worthwhile there needs to be an abundance of two things.

    Wide roads with bike lanes such that cyclists have minimal interactions with pedestrians and cars.

    Most importantly, bike parking. The city of pittsburgh has installed a few "artistic-syled" bike hookups, but what really is needed are those lockable bike shelters. They are like a dog-house except with a locking door. They offer peace of mind for bike-commuters and take up very little space.

    Ramble Ramble- I've not got much else to say except DC's system will have difficult staying away from being a great-awful idea in it's current position.

  7. I thought the tone of the article was a little bit too snotty and negative. Bikes pretty much do kick ass for getting around in a city. And, there's no reason a bike-sharing service couldn't work, with a little tweaking. It just ought to be privately-operated, like ZipCar.

  8. $550 to replace one of those bikes? Theft isn't a problem, it is a feature.

  9. The problem with bike sharing is that the subscribers aren't the ones who will abuse the system.

    What's wrong with private bike ownership? I'd much rather use my own bicycle and pay to use a network of secure parking spots.

    It just seems more, American.

  10. It works OK is some cities, but human nature took over in Lexington. 25% of the bikes were stolen or irreparably damaged after a few months. They had to hire someone full time to hunt for stolen bikes and repair damaged ones. Then they had to weld all the seats on because people were taking the seats off after chaining-up the bikes so that someone else couldn't use them. And you had to start leaving a deposit.

    I think Reinmoose's idea would work much better. If you didn't have to worry constantly about it being stolen (and the cops not giving a fuck about bike thefts) it would do more to drive ridership than all of the governmental programs ever could.

    Two years ago, on about the fifth day of school, a gang of bike thieves drove an official-looking white panel van around campus. While wearing overalls and carrying clipboards, they used a pneumatic bolt cutter and stole close to a hundred bicycles in about 4 hours. No one ever challenged them because they looked like the grounds crew. Never caught and I'm pretty sure none of the bikes were recovered. Why would you ride a bike to campus?

  11. As someone who is related to someone who was a serial bike thief, I can tell you that these guys will not be deterred. There are too many removable parts to lock up, and they will take anything that is literally not nailed down. It's simple cherry-picking for them.

  12. Given the downsides of bike sharing, a foldable personal transportational device makes more sense. I've seen foldable bikes and other PTDs that I might want for the holidays.

  13. why won't my god smite the bike theif?

    It's like he doesn't want us to ride bikes.


  14. You know... we no longer actually have to cut the hands of a thief off. Wouldn't the correct application of Botox paralyze their hands for six weeks? You're not going to steal much with paralyzed hands. Six weeks of not being able to feed yourself, wipe your own ass, masturbate, fingerbang your dog, and, most importantly, not being able to steal a bicycle, would be a powerful deterrent.

    If you think I'm kidding, give me a loaded syringe and a bike thief.

  15. I'm holding out for teleportation devices. Until then, I plan to idle for two hours a day in my Excursion. I'm even thinking about leaving it idle all night so that the A/C will be going in the morning and I won't have to turn that inconvenient "key".

  16. I just got back from Paris where I rode one of
    the Velibs.

    There was good and bad about it.
    1> There were a lot of bikes and stations.
    2> The bikes were decent. The basket was useful.
    3> It was cheap.
    I purchased the right to get a bike for
    1 Euro for a day. And it only cost me
    1 more Euro for being a half and hour late.
    4> I don't have to live there and get mad about
    the socialism.

    1> The automatic station where I purchased my
    rental agreement apparently ran out of paper.
    I did not get a print out of my secret code
    so I could not rent another bike later in
    the day.
    2> A friendly Gendarme pulled me over and gave
    me a ticket for 135 Euro's.
    I was going the wrong way down a 200 yard
    long street. There was no traffic. Not even
    3> Sometimes the station where you want to
    return your bike to is FULL. You can not
    return the bike and you have to find another
    station or wait from someone to come by and
    take a bike out. I only waited a minute
    but I was worried.

  17. It's early yet. But all I could think of was, Man! Them is some dorky-looking bikes!

    ...finger-bang your dog?

  18. Seems there can be a quite a bit wrong with a bike sharing program. But the article was too busy rattling on a specific program's warts. At this point, it's like ragging on those check cashing places as a bad idea. Which is generally true, but beside the point. They exist because there's a demand. Similarly, if there's a demand for such bike programs, even if they're a bad deal, they will exist.

  19. I'm all for it as long as they use these to park the bikes:

  20. the tone was pretty snotty, but I think modifying these programs to let you use your own bike - making this effectively a bike parking and maybe repair service - is a very good one. A great American variation on it.

    and SugarFree, I hear you. It's very frustrating, especially because it's such a very low priority for cops. Hard to blame them with all the other shit going on in a big city (especially since you usually can't tell who the owner was), and maybe we would be bitching about heavy-handedness otherwise, but damn it would be nice to see one of these petty bastards get their comeuppance.

    Anyway - I'd love to see a ton of bike parking facilities in NYC. I fear that real-estate prices here would make it prohibitively expensive.

  21. Private transportation, after all, is the enemy! It's selfish, inefficient, it's organized enough.

    Isn't that supposed to be not organized enough?

  22. Joel,

    ...finger-bang your dog?

    I was trying to imagine a day in the life of the human shit-stain that is a bicycle thief.


    Maybe the cops in NYC or Chicago get a little bit of a pass for not investigating bike thefts, but around here I don't give them an inch. They do jack shit on campus.

  23. Phil D

    Cool! I want one. Make a viewing area and I bet you could charge admission just to watch.

  24. Zipcar works.
    Zipbike would as well.

  25. they've been doing that in copenhagen since the mid nineties.

    The Provos attempted to introduce a shared-bike system in Amsterdam in the '60s. But Greg didn't say Paris was the inspiration for all shared-bike programs; he said it was the inspiration for the modern, heavily monitored variety.

  26. Sure, there are plenty of problems with bike-sharing programs, but in principle they should all be solvable. If these programs are worthwhile, though, why not let some brilliant entrepreneurial type take care of things via the private sector?

  27. I was in Amsterdam for a couple of weeks back in '95 and there were hundreds (if not thousands) of cheap bikes outside the train station and near trolley stops. All for the feree usage, just bring it back the next time you come to the train or bus. Since they all looked like shit and there were literally hundreds of them no one would steal them.

  28. As a person who primarily commutes by bike, and has only had to fill his gas tank once this summer, I say:

    Refund my taxes and buy your own damn bike and lock.


  29. Is the DC program tax funded? The article seemed to indicate it was funded by subscription and advertising.

    Beato's article does seem pretty snotty about it. It's bad if you think about it like public transportation. It's bad if the bike you borrow gets stolen. How about it's bad because it's not a viable business model? Sure, but that isn't really what Beato argues. And it's not clear if that's even the case. Basically it sucks because he thinks it's some kind of crappy hippie bike-nut pipe dream.

  30. Basically it sucks because he thinks it's some kind of crappy hippie bike-nut pipe dream.

    Well, this IS a libertarian forum. A little dumping on the whole concept of not owning one's own automobile is to be expected. Even is this were a hugely profitable private enterprise.

  31. there is an easy way to reduce/resolve the theft issue. just lojack the bikes. and put the device somewhere that a person would pretty much have to destroy the bike to remove the lojack.

  32. 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.

    And he can do something with those pesky things called "kids", those annoying accoutrements known as 'groceries' and the grandmother with the bad hip who can't walk long distances.

    just lojack the bikes. and put the device somewhere that a person would pretty much have to destroy the bike to remove the lojack.

    Who cares about theft? Vandalism is your bigger problem. It looks like they solved the issue with the account system, though.

  33. You go where you want, when you want.

    Provided you're in shape and can handle the terrain between origin and destination.

  34. And he can do something with those pesky things called "kids", those annoying accoutrements known as 'groceries' and the grandmother with the bad hip who can't walk long distances.

    So much for "autonomy"....

  35. Rhywun:

    We take it where we can get it.

  36. Of course the article is snotty and idiotic, it's more product of having worthless cretin Matt Welch and similarly simpering idiot Tim Cavanaugh in charge of what I understand was once a respectable magazine -- flushing it down the toilet with their old-fogey 1990s sensibilities that being "ironic" and looking down your nose at anyone trying something new is the best way to be. Both of them are worthless pieces of shit and I can't wait until they are both deceased so I can shit and piss all over their graves and direct mocking catcalls at anyone idiotic enough to mourn them. I understand that Welch is married, to a woman who should be ashamed of herself for having such utterly reprehensible taste in men. Imagine, Welch, an utter idiot who fails his way from one publication to another, adopting whatever editorial line he's told, like when he used to be paid to write Naderite bullshit, gamely acting like he believes in that just like he acts like he believes in libertarianism now so he can get a paycheck from a publication apparently too stupid to see what a piece of dog shit he is.

    Welch, Cavanaugh, and Beato are emblems of false libertarianism being adopted by aging hipsters who don't want to admit they're the old farts now, and who substitute looking down their nose at everyone for any kind of reasonable analysis. (Look at Beato claiming fans of "alternative transportation" would look down on this questionable but harmless bike-sharing thing for being private enterprise, as though alternative transportation people don't also love the similarly private Zipcar. Beato is an idiot, working for an utter shitheaded cretin in Welch and employing the same mindless approach to he world as the similarly fecal Cavanaugh.) They should be ashamed of themselves and the world will be a better place when they are all deceased.

  37. Uh... drink?

  38. I disagree with the author's perspective. Bike-sharing is a new mode of transit that improves mobility in an environmentally sound and cost effective manner. For this it should be commended.

  39. New at Reason: Greg BeatoGeneric Libertarian on What's Wrong with Bike-Sharing

    Fixed headline.

  40. Bikes: brilliant.

    Bike-sharing: meh.

    I bike to work most days. (It helps that I live less than five miles from my office.) There's no chance that I would want to participate in, or fund, a program that promises me an expensive, crappy, unsafe ride and a heaping helping of surveillance and regulation.

    And that isn't because I hate taxes ... it's because I like bicycling. And I like my bones unbroken, too.

    I've seen "bike-sharing" programs. Shared bikes are unsafe, ill-maintained bikes. Most of the work of maintaining a bicycle is in noticing when something is wrong and bothering to do something about it. That pretty much requires that you be using the same bike regularly and feel some responsibility for its condition. The folks who ride shared bikes are not as likely to notice problems, and the folks who run the program are not likely to want to check every bike over even cursorily every day.

    Want to encourage bicycle commuting? Here's how:

    First, make the roads safe for bicycles. This means well-marked, clean, wide bike lanes that are distinct from the shoulder of the road. See Copenhagen for abundant examples.

    Second, communicate and enforce traffic laws for bicycles and for cars near bicycles. No cyclist should be riding the wrong way down the street, or blowing through stop lights. No driver should be cutting off cyclists at corners or curb-cuts ... or throwing things at cyclists.

    (Here's my one wacko idea for this post: pass a law permitting cyclists to shoot offending vehicles. With a paintball marker, that is; handguns have too much recoil.)

    Third, deploy self-locking bike parking. The locks work like the safes in hotel rooms. Roll your bike in, punch in a number on the keypad, and that becomes the lock combination. Punch the same combination to unlock. The lock also automatically unlocks after some (configurable) time period.

    Fourth (and most socialist of all): make bicycling part of the school P.E. curriculum. If you can't ride a bike, you can't graduate. (Exceptions available upon application, for those who don't have two good legs.)

    Bicycling is fun, safe, cheap, good exercise, green, and incredibly convenient. Any transportation plan that involves more bicycles on the road has to maintain these virtues. It's possible ... but "bike-sharing" systems don't do it.

  41. Hi Jesse:

    thanks for the info!

    I thought I had remembered Amsterdam (the other bike capital of Europe) had done something like that. Still... in europe, it's never an idea unless the french get credit 🙂

    oh - did Jean Bart set up the pilot program?

    (keed keed)

  42. paul,

    Who cares about theft? Vandalism is your bigger problem. It looks like they solved the issue with the account system, though.

    Did you even read the article? Apparently theft is a big problem, just as big as vandalism.

    '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.'

  43. The Dutch "white bike" program of the late 60's is instructive. The government bought thousands of white bikes and sprinkled them all over the country. The plan was to facilitate usage anywhere / anytime. After a short time, all the white bikes were stolen, and there was a big increase in sales of (non-white) spray paint. The clear solution was to buy more white bikes and make spray paint illegal! I'm not kidding... that's actually what they did.

    "That which we obtain too easily, we esteem too lightly." -- Thomas Paine

    "If it's free, it's not valuable." -- Milton Freeman

  44. $40 Dollars a year to sign up for the program in DC?!?! You can buy a bike on craigslist for that price.

  45. I used Call a Bike in Germany, and loved it:
    (Watch the flash movie.)

    The bikes were pretty high-tech with bell, lights, 8-speeds, fenders, full suspension, rack, lock, adjustable seat (good even for my 6'2" size) and nonstandard screws and bolts so you couldn't steal the parts off of them.

    They could be used 24 hours a day (as far as I could tell) and all day or week if you wanted. For one-way trips or round trips, within a certain city radius. Max charge a day was about $12 USD. Call to set up an account, call the number on the bike, get the unlock code, ride it till you're done, then call and tell then you're finished using it.

    It's not a private system (DB) but I don't see why it couldn't be.

  46. Take a decent idea. Inject lawyers, authoritarians and nitpicking nitwits. What do you get? A bad idea!

  47. TFA does not state how much the Paris VELIB bike cost to rent, but this info is found in the comments.
    Even at one euro per day, it is still better to buy your own. To wit, the cheapest adult China made bike at WalMart is less than a hundred dollars, and the Schwinn is $150. The Cost is recovered in two to three months.
    Used, these are available for $25 to $50 and are just as good. I bought used. Ironically, the locks needed to secure the bike cost more than the bike. I left it at DC Union station overnight. Arriving via train, I rode the bike to the office (2 miles) and back. Great savings in money and TIME. Took some lunch hour tours, too.
    My advice, buy your own.
    Rentals are for tourists or visitors.
    Instead of a zip bike, there should be a bike exchange, where you could buy one for $50, and sell it back for $25, after keeping it for as long as you like. Why should it cost $20 per day to rent a $25 bike?

  48. Riding Bike With The Right Body Position.
    There are several different body positions that are able to produce slightly different results with each varied use. These body positions are important to learn and use to ensure the best rides are experienced.

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