The Other Public Trans


By Brian Fencil

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

When it was first conceived as the brain child of the Bloomberg administration in partnership with Citi Bank in 2011, New York City’s Citi Bike program purported to pioneer the first privately owned yet publicly administered bike share program in the world. Planners proposed the platform with the hope that Citi Bike would not need additional public funding. Yet in the first year since the program took to the streets, the numbers are making a sterling case that bike shares might just need taxpayer money, plain and simple.

Like many programs pioneered by the Big Apple, Citi Bike is the largest bike share service in the US, but unlike other programs, is meant to make a profit. A year after its launch, the private project burned through much of its $47.5 million original investment and is trying to raise tens of millions more to compensate. Meanwhile broken bikes are filling warehouses, and rampant tech problems are getting users frustrated.

To make matters even worse, the city hit the struggling program with a $1 million fee as imbursement for lost parking revenue.

Despite the foreboding financial woes of Citi Bike, there has been a global boom in bike share programs over the last four years. According to Gian-Carlo Crivello, the Director of Business Development at Public Bike System Company (PBSC), this boom has been driven by technologies, interest, demand, and the realization of what a bike share is. Because of all of these factors, bike shares are not only here to stay, but their future is looking brighter than ever.

Bike shares are not new to European cities, but they only began in the Americas in 2009, when PBSC launched in Montreal. Unlike other programs which existed before and had some (though unsubstantiated) reports of bikes being stolen or thrown in canals, PBSC’s program used new technologies to make bike-share specific bikes and docking stations.

Virtually overnight, they installed 300 modular bike docking stations that use solar energy, therefore do not rely on the city’s power supply. In winter, these modular stations can be packed up and moved. PBSC also installed 3,000 bikes which are equipped with GPS and made with theft-proof, proprietary parts. The next year, the program turned out to be such a success that they needed to expand and added 100 docking stations and 2,000 bikes.

A big reason for the growth, Crivello says, was the correct understanding of what a bike share is. Before the program’s launch, bike shares were misconstrued as an automated bike rental. The presence of PBSC caused people to realize that bikes can solve the “last-mile” problem for commuters and are an integral part of public transportation.

“Getting from point A to Point B is not as easy as it used to [be],” Crivello tells BTR. Bikes are faster than everything else in dense metropolitan areas, which is especially true during train delays. During these times, bike shares not only make it easier for people to get to work, but also disencumber the already taxed train system.

After noting the success of Montreal’s bike share–as well as other programs abroad–B-Cycle helped launch the first large-scale program in the US, in 2010. Since then, PBSC and B-Cycle have expanded to 41 cities and two universities. Other companies servicing such unique methods of public transportation began to expand as well, and an estimated 750 bike share programs exist around the world with another 230 on the way. Currently, the largest is in Wuhan, China with about 90,000 bikes.

Bike share programs not only help residents commute, but they help create healthier and safer communities overall. According to a study from the Alliance for Biking and Walking, as ridership increases in a city, fatalities decline. There hasn’t been a single fatality in US-based bike shares, even though Citi Bike riders alone have tallied over 20 million miles. There are several reasons for this decline. Fewer cars on the road could be one factor, drivers’ awareness of cyclists another, but the bike used in bike shares is also an important aspect.

“They are not the kind of bikes you would take on a 20k ride,” Crivello says. These bikes ride like a tank, which is exactly what PBSC and other companies had in mind in their design.

PBSC and B-cycles both gave their bikes three-speeds (some of the B-Cycles have seven), and a low center of gravity. Similarly, electric bikes used in a bike share based in Madrid have a top speed of only 15 mph. These bikes are safe, and not designed for exercise or exploring. There are fees for riding longer than an allotted amount of time to prevent such practices.

For riders looking for something beyond commuting to and from work, there are online peer-to-peer sharing services available, in which individuals can exchange bikes and equipment via a mobile app.

Andrew Bately, the CMO of SpinLister, a rapidly growing peer-to-peer sharing app for bikes, surfboards, and skis tells BTR that SpinLister is not in competition with automated bike shares, but rather to serve a more complementary role. Automated bike shares create a strong cycling culture and accustom people to exploring and commuting by bike, which makes it more likely that they will use a peer-to-peer sharing service, like SpinLister, when traveling. Also, automated systems use apps to find bikes that are similar to SpinLister’s.

Many athletes use SpinLister to avoid having to pay exorbitant shipping fees transporting their expensive bikes to and from races. Instead, they rent, and can often find a bike better than their own. As such, SpinLister is currently the official bike share of Iron Man, and Challenge Family in Atlantic City.

In the last few years, SpinLister has profited alongside the exponential growth of automated bike shares, which is a trend SpinLister is trying hard to control. Bately says they currently have 60 percent more demand then they can fill, and want to keep the quality of their service high.

In turn, the skyrocketing success of SpinLister and other complementary services is one of the many signs that biking and bike shares do not need to worry about their popularity. Another sign comes from the emerging technologies geared toward enhancing bike share programs. GoBike, a tablet powered E-bike, was unveiled this year in five cities. Though it is similar to other bike shares around the world, GoBikes can tell the rider about popular destinations, use GPS to help them navigate, and use a little bit of electricity to travel faster.

Though Citi Bike is not yet making money, there are strong signs that bike shares themselves are healthy–not only for communities and riders themselves, but for the transportation network of any large metropolis.

Looking forward to what’s going on in the US with programs like Citi Bike and others, Crivello realizes that although the PBSC have already recently redesigned their bicycles, “there is still so much potential with technology.”

For more on Citi Bike and other bike shares, check out BreakThru News.