French Revolution

Today thousands of cyclists around the country hit the streets for Bike to Work Day in the United States. In a country dominated by the car, bike transit - as opposed to recreational cycling - is still somewhat of a novelty. Even in large, densely populated cities, you’re more likely to find shared cars than shared bikes. And despite the fact that a car costs 40 times more than a bike, daily fees for renting bikes often exceed those for renting a car. (See WashCycle for a good missive on this.)

But several major cities in Europe have embraced the idea of shared bikes. Shared bikes are low-cost rental bikes parked at stations across the city, optimized for one way trips. For-profit companies like Cyclocity or SmartBike work in conjunction with city planners to help link transportation nodes that are too close for a bus or car, but too far to walk. And unlike shared cars which must be returned to the same parking space, bikes can be returned to any station in the system.

Members provide a refundable deposit (~$200) and pay a nominal annual fee (~$15).  Whenever they need a bike, they simply swipe a card to release an available bike. Rides under 30 minutes are usually free, with increasing fares after that. Most bikes have internal gears and solid tires minimizing muss and fuss - ideal for commuters.

Paris announced this week that it is introducing 20,600 shared bikes at more than 1,400 stations across the city by July 15. The idea has been popular in other European cities, from Lyon to Munich, but with nearly one shared bike for every thousand Parisians, the Bastille Day rollout is nothing less than… revolutionary (see statastic below).

Several US cities including San Francisco, Portland, and Chicago are studying the idea of shared bikes, but it looks like Washington DC will be the first American guinea pig. Early indications are that the DC plan will initially be modest. Like shared cars, shared bike systems greatly benefit from network effects. But now that the planet is heating up, this is no time to be modest. The more shared bikes, the more locations near potential riders, and the users more likely to give it a try, the more profitable, etc.

So can DC match the French passion for shared bike? Not just yet. In order to have the same density of shared bikes in DC as in Paris, Washington would need 5,700 bikes or about 80 Smart Bikes per square mile. And if shared bikes help gets tourists off of those goofy Segways, all the better.

Previously, I hypothesized that widespread adoption of the shared cars would decrease demand for streetside parking (especially with this concept), allowing for more, safer bike lanes. Shared bikes and shared cars could easily work in harmony with one another - there are certainly times when you need a car. But it is time for local leaders to shun the one-car, one-driver paradigm and shared bikes are a great way to start.

.

.

.

.

.