Friday, September 17, 2010
Two years ago the “Smartbike” program launched in Washington, D.C. (for the uninitiated, bikeshare programs offer free or low-cost access to community-owned bicycles for trips around a city). By all accounts, Smartbike has been an unqualified disaster. No one bothered to
promote the program, only long-term memberships were offered (freezing out
tourists), and there weren’t many places that a rider could pick-up or drop-off
Despite the total failure of Smartbike, D.C. is trying again; This week the D.C. Department of Transportation debuted Capital Bikeshare. The new plan certainly seems like an improvement. The city has heavily hyped the scheme (they’re on Facebook!), prospective users had input on the locations of the bike stations, and tourists will have access to bikes for 24-hour periods.
Despite these positive innovations, my Property-themed crystal ball
indicates that Bikeshare will certainly falter. Why? No individual
bears a significant portion of the costs if they damage a bicycle – a flat tire
here, a bent rim there. Thus, users have little incentive to take care of the
bikes or ride them in a safe and reasonable manner. This is classic Tragedy of
the Commons territory.
History, too, shows the folly of D.C.’s efforts. In 2007, Paris launched Velib - a remarkably well-funded and well-promoted attempt at Bikesharing (the Velib program has 20,000 bikes compared to D.C.’s 1000). Yet, by 2009, 80 percent of the bicycles had been stolen or damaged:
It is commonplace now to see the bikes at docking station in Paris with flat tires, punctured wheels or missing baskets. Some Velib's have been found hanging from lampposts, dumped in the Seine, used on the streets of Bucharest or resting in shipping containers on their way to North Africa. Some are simply appropriated and repainted.
The failure of the Bikresharing programs is not confined to France. Other plans have had difficulty (financial or otherwise) in Melbourne, Portland, Stockholm, and Amsterdam. If both theory and history show that these programs are duds, why do governments keep insisting on giving them a go?
(Picture: The author, thoroughly enjoying a Velib ride before ditching his bike in the Seine)