When I moved to Chicago this past September, one of the first things I did was buy a yearlong pass to its recently-installed Divvy Bike program. I’d deemed it too expensive to move my bike out from my parents’ house in the San Francisco Bay Area, but it seemed silly to spend hundreds of dollars on a new bike just because I’d moved. I wasn’t sure how much I would use the system—especially because Chicago’s public transit system, for all its faults, puts San Francisco’s to shame—but I bet that I’d get my $75 worth out of it.
Bikeshare systems, in one way or another, have been around since the 1960s, when a radical Dutch group called Provo launched the Witte Fietsen, or White Bicycles, in Amsterdam. Without today’s technology, it failed miserably, with most of the bikes ending up either stolen or destroyed. (It does still exist, though, in the Hoge Veluwe National Park.) Several other bikeshare experiments were launched and shuttered from the ‘70s to the ‘90s in cities like Cambridge and Portsmouth in the UK; Rotterdam, Holland; Portland, Oregon; and Tuscon, Arizona. A few took hold; La Rochelle, France’s Vélos Jaunes system, launched in 1974, is still in use today, as is Copenhagen’s ByCyklen, launched in 1995.
Bikesharing has always been more controversial in the US than anywhere else. In my research, I was unable to find anything resembling Wall Street Journal editorial board member Dorothy Rabinowitz’s comments about CitiBike “begriming” New York City elsewhere in the world. Yet it seems to have caught on; in the time since I moved, San Franciscans have made Bay Area Bike Share the largest system on the West Coast, and cities including Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia are working on bringing bikeshare systems to their citizens as soon as they can. As Dan Malouff wrote on Greater Greater Washington, “At this point, it’s fair to say we’re no longer in the pioneering period. Any city that still doesn’t have bikesharing is beginning to fall behind.”
Wherever bikesharing systems are put into place, bike traffic rises by astronomical levels. When Lyon, France’s much-lauded Vélo’v system was launched in 2005, only 1.5 percent of trips were made by bike. Between 2005 and 2008 that number had increased by five times, with about 25 percent of that coming directly from bikesharing. When the city introduced Vélo’v, it had to adapt its streets to be bike-friendly, which encourages all bikers to bike more, and non-bikers to pick it up. This has a natural environmental correlation; writing in Carbusters magazine in 2008, Paul DeMaio noted that 2.2 million miles had been traveled by Vélo’v customers in the three years it had been open. Had the same distance been traveled by car, 7,260 tons of carbon dioxide would have been emitted into the atmosphere. This isn’t a huge amount for one city over three years, but if 50 Lyon-sized cities adopted bikesharing, impressive progress could be made.
The most negative press bikesharing has received, outside of select people who call all bikers “two-wheeled terrorists” and aside from Dorothy Rabinowitz has been the fact that they’re mostly not profitable (yet). Divvy bikes lost $148,000 in 2013; not a huge amount of money, but it will be mainly taxpayers who shell out for it. CitiBike’s very public financial disaster hasn’t shut down the program quite yet, but its leaders warn it could go that way if more funding is not found. Most of America’s bikeshare programs are funded by some form of public-private collaboration, which is usually useful up front (CitiBank’s name sponsorship of CitiBikes helped launched it) but if the bikes aren’t being used enough, private sponsors usually drop out, leaving the city to clean up the mess. Some bikesharing programs have been entirely privately-funded, like Washington, D.C.’s former SmartBike D.C., which closed down after a year to be replaced by the public-private Capital Bikeshare. The Washington Post’s Emily Badger described CitiBike’s private-sector-only funding plan as “an unusual proposition for a system that effectively functions as part of the city’s public transportation network.”
Cities’ thinking about bikesharing varies greatly. It occupies a strange kind of grey area between public transportation, like trains and buses, and private transportation, like personal bikes and cars. Most bikesharing systems operate at a loss, which for public transportation isn’t necessarily a big deal—it’s part of a city’s responsibility to provide that, and they budget for that loss. Bikesharing, though, is very, very new in America, and cities have a ways to go before they really figure out how the funding works. In Europe and Asia, most systems are treated like public utilities, and are funded through public subsidies.
The appeal of bikesharing doesn’t really lie in biking itself; rather, the ephemerality of the experience. Most bikeshare systems allow for 30–45 minute rides for free, once you’ve paid your membership or 24-hour fee. The systems are mapped out with stations placed in small groups every half mile or so in heavily populated areas. They’re not for leisurely rides; they’re to get somewhere specific, no more than a few miles away. I live about 25 minutes away from work by train, but if I miss the last one that will get me there on time, that’s OK; it’s about 20 minutes away by Divvy bike. When I biked around San Francisco, I was constantly worrying about whether I’d locked up my bike well enough. Bike theft in San Francisco, as in all major cities, is a huge worry—it skyrocketed 70 percent between 2006 and 2012. The joy of the irresponsibility that comes with bikeshare systems is not to be overplayed; knowing that once you shove the bike into the docking station, you’re done with it forever, if you want, is freeing.