Sorry, Citibike naysayers: when it comes to bikesharing, the trend is not in your favor.
New York City came late to bikesharing, and its new system has earned mixed reviews in the New York press. However, Citibike joins a fast-growing trend. According to statistics from metrobike.net, the number of bikeshare services worldwide skyrocketed from 62 in December 2007 to 497 in December 2012. That's growth of over 700 percent over a five-year period.
Bike sharing programs have grown across the globe in recent years. (Statista/metrobike.net)
Bikes are not exactly a new phenomenon (nor is bikesharing; European cities have boasted systems for decades), and there are myriad theories as to why the trend is exploding.
Convenience is one factor. In neighborhoods under-served by public transit, bikeshare solves the "last-mile problem," as John Pucher, a professor in the urban planning and policy development program at Rutgers University, describes it in an email to U.S. News. Instead of having to hike a mile or two to a subway station, commuters can quickly bike there. Plus, it can also mean increased usage of public transit, as it makes the system more accessible.
Part of it is also economics, says another expert.
"I think that it's that local governments and cities are recognizing the importance of creating these walkable, bikeable neighborhoods," says Raksha Vasudevan, an associate at the Center for Research and Innovation Sustainability at the National League of Cities, a nonpartisan advocacy organization for local governments. More walking and biking means more business for neighborhood stores, she says. The NLC has also argued that bikesharing can increase property values, meaning higher revenues for cities.
Of course, there's no conclusive answer to why the idea has caught on. For example, the economic argument for bikeshare is not cut-and-dry. While bikesharing may boost commerce, it is not always profitable. Many bikeshare systems are public-private partnerships, and most cannot cover all of their costs from user fees alone, meaning that cities and businesses may not get back all the money they invest in the programs.
Bikesharing is also theoretically good for the environment, as bikes have no emissions, but the jury is still out as to how much it really lessens a city's carbon footprint. Though bikers aren't driving, bike sharing operators do have to truck bikes around the city from high-traffic to low-traffic areas in order to even out the supply, which necessitates a fair amount of driving.
That problem is universal, says Pucher. "I am not aware of a single bikesharing system where that is not a problem," he says.
In addition, bikesharing doesn't necessarily make for fewer cars and less congestion. A new survey from Washington, D.C.'s Capital Bikeshare finds that only 4 percent of all riders would have driven their own vehicle if the bikes were not available.
Though Pucher supports bikesharing (albeit with some reservations), he acknowledges that bikesharing's rapid growth is simply due to the fact that it's the craze of the moment, having earned the support of avid bike riders like himself.
"I do think that bike sharing is booming partly because it is a fad, an exciting new development that has captured the interest and enthusiasm of my people," he says.