Friday, September 17, 2010

The Strange, Utopian Quest for a Workable Bikeshare Program


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 a bike.   

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?

Steve Clowney

(Picture:  The author, thoroughly enjoying a Velib ride before ditching his bike in the Seine)

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In fact, you agree to be responsible for damage to the bike, and a credit card is kept on file. Other than both Smartbike and Capital Bikeshare both being called "bike sharing schemes", the operations have very little in common. Smartbike was under-provisioned, undermarketed, and not able to handle one-time uses. Capital Bikeshare has an enormous network at rollout, buy in from broad constituencies, and anyone with a credit card can use it.

But hey, don't let some facts get in the way of half-assed analysis.

Posted by: MB | Sep 24, 2010 4:35:14 PM

Your account of what 'history' tells us about bikesharing is too selective to offer any true insight. Your omission of any mention of success stories like Montreal and Minneapolis, and your eagerness to file Paris under 'duds' is also rather questionable. I understand the this is a property theory post, but by focussing on only one aspect (vandalism) you ignore the numerous positive effects bike share schemes have on a city. Surely the success or failure of a scheme should be measured against all of these things.

No on the property arguement: Vandalism also happens to park benches, mailboxes, lamp posts, etc... Does that mean we should give up installing and maintaining them? These things are considered essential parts of urban infrasctructure and thankfully we recognize that they have a value beyond being able to pay for themselves. In time, people will come to see bike share programs in much the same way. I live in a city that has such a scheme, and when the average citizen sees a bike share bike chained to a post in someone's back yard, they call the police. They stick up for the scheme, because it is a part of their daily lives, and they have an interest in it working well.

Posted by: Nicolas | Sep 24, 2010 4:57:28 PM

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