Bike Sharing Systems Aren't Trying to Peddle for Profit

Bike sharing systems in major U.S. cities often can't cover all of their expenses. They're okay with that.

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Bike sharing programs continue to grow across the country, despite not being able to turn a profit. (AP)

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"If you ask [riders] the general question of 'Does having the bike share available in your city make you more or less likely to use transit throughout the year?', they'll say, 'It makes me more likely,'" says Dossett, explaining that riders can bike to work in the morning, but when it rains in the afternoon, they can bus home.

Pucher also says that bike sharing solves the "first-and-last-mile" problem for many commuters, expanding the reach and usage of existing public transit systems. He says that, while many people might only want to walk less than a mile to get to the nearest subway station, they might happily bike two miles to the subway.

With commuters putting forth extra effort to move about their communities, bike sharing can also increase commerce, helping to move consumers to and from areas that might otherwise be hard to reach.

[Go inside the Silicon Valley gender gap.]

There are also several non-economic benefits linked to bike sharing. Proponents say that it improves public health by encouraging non-bikers to try cycling, getting some exercise in the process. Likewise, environmental benefits and bike sharing are often mentioned in the same breath. Those exact benefits are difficult to measure, though. Bike sharing may promote exercise and reduce car trips to a certain extent, but it also replaces many walking trips with biking trips—making for no extra exercise, and eliminating no carbon emissions.

While making piles of money isn't the aim of many bike sharing systems, more revenue is always helpful, and cities are experimenting to improve their systems' bottom lines. Washington, D.C., has discussed putting advertising on bikes themselves, and New York may be the test case to watch for other cities that want to institute bike sharing without public funding.

Twitter: @titonka