The bike sharing fad has spread across the U.S. like wildfire, with over 30 cities introducing a form of the service since 2008. High profile programs in New York and Washington, D.C. have proven the merits of bike sharing for commuters and visitors alike, and now the Seattle region is finally getting in on the game. Puget Sound Bike Share, a non-profit partnering with private and public interests in King County, plans to launch this spring despite a funding shortage.
Over 500 cities have bike sharing services and the global fleet totals more than 500,000 bicycles. The idea was pioneered in the 1960s by a Dutch subculture, but bike sharing floundered for decades as non-profits and cities cancelled projects due to excessive theft and vandalism. The concept’s modern resurgence is widely attributed the 2007 launch of Paris’ Vélib’ system, which is currently the third largest bike-share in the world with an average daily ridership of over 80,000. The system is operated by a private company in partnership with several cities and uses technology to enhance security and customer experience, attributes that have been replicated in other cities. The largest two bike-share systems are in China; number one Hangzhou Public Bicycle launched in 2008, and as of a year ago has 66,500 bicycles and 2,700 stations. In the United States, Portland, Tuscon, Madison, and Boston were early testbeds, but two high-profile startups have helped spread bike sharing to many other cities.
Washington, D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare launched in May 2010 as the nation’s largest system and sales of 24-hour passes have skyrocketed to nearly 400,000 per month. In partnership with city and county governments, the system operates about 2,400 bicycles and nearly 300 stations with plans for continuing expansion. In May 2013 (launching just before summer must be a successful marketing tactic), New York’s CitiBike started operations in Manhattan and Brooklyn with 6,000 bikes from 330 stations, taking the lead from D.C. without any subsidies. As of November the system has signed up 93,000 people who rode 10 million miles without a single fatality, which is significant considering that city’s pedestrian safety record. Both systems are managed in a public-private partnership with Alta Bike Share, which runs many other bike-shares across the U.S including the upcoming Seattle system.
Besides the health benefits, people utilize bike sharing for many reasons. Using electronic payments, modern bike-shares offer a flexible transportation option; bikes can be checked out from and returned to any station in the system. Prices often increase in 30-minute increments, which, along with proper station siting, encourages the type of short last mile pedestrian trips that aren’t covered by public transit lines. For commuters, a public bike decreases the upkeep and security needed for a personal bike. Families and tourists can use bike-shares for leisurely trips. And, counter-intuitively, urban cycling gets safer as more people do it; this is due to infrastructure expansion and drivers being more aware of bicycles in cities with greater percentages of bicycle commuters. And as biking gets safer more people will partake, evidenced by a City of Portland study that found 60 percent of commuters are interested in biking but are concerned about safety: “…the number one reason people do not ride bicycles is because they are afraid to be in the roadway on a bicycle”. About 4 percent of Seattle residents commute by bike currently.
Along with safety training and education programs, the solution to that is building protected bicycle lanes and separated cycle tracks where appropriate, which Seattle proposes with its Bicycle Master Plan. Further, the city has been considering bike-shares since 2010, when SDOT contracted a planning studio at the University of Washington to produce a feasibility study (PDF). The study concluded Seattle has the population density, bicycle infrastructure, job centers, tourist attractions, and other factors that would support bike sharing. It recommended three phases of implementation, starting with downtown stations and then moving to outlying neighborhoods. The study also reported on general guidelines based on other cities, such as placing stations no more than 1,000 feet apart, providing twice as many docks as bicycles, and identifying locations for permanent stations versus mobile stations, which are solar powered and have adjustable capacity.
Seattle has several obstacles to bike-sharing, however, most notably King County’s helmet law; it’s simply not practical to carry around a bike helmet when bike-share trips are spontaneous or short term. Following Boston’s innovative helmet vending machines, which dispense reusable and sanitized helmets, Puget Sound Bike Share will provide helmets at stations while their use will continue to be required. Another issue is a lawsuit that is delaying adoption of the citywide Bike Master Plan. Regardless, Puget Sound Bike Share (PSBS) is moving ahead at full-steam.
Last September the City Council unanimously approved the placement of stations on public property. PSBS has over 50 percent of the startup funding it needs, which has included a $500,000 grant from Seattle Children’s Hospital, $750,000 from WSDOT, and a $1 million federal grant that was supported by REI, Vulcan, the Downtown Seattle Association, and Cascade Bicycle Club. As reported in this space last year, the first phase is expected to open this May with stations in Downtown, South Lake Union, Capitol Hill, and the U-District. The Stranger reports a 24-hour membership would be about $9 and an annual membership $85.
However, PSBS is still underfunded after failing to get sponsorships from the area’s major employers like Amazon, Starbucks, and Microsoft. If fundraising is not met, PSBS will limit the first rollout to the U-District and South Lake Union, which could limit the public’s interest and the system’s usefulness. In my opinion, it may make more sense to put some bike stations to neighborhoods along the Burke Gilman trail, which is already a major cycling draw.
Cities working to improve transportation are wise to invest in a medley of public options that are every bit accessible as they are versatile. Bike sharing is a relatively inexpensive and expandable system that can fill in the gaps of established networks while encouraging the redesign of streets for all users, which will only draw more cyclists as perceived safety and ease of use increases. For further reading, check out Seattle Bike Blog and the Institute for Transportation and Development’s handy Bike Share Planning Guide (PDF).