By now, most people have heard of or seen a bike-sharing program in action. Although fairly new to some American cities, the concept of renting a bike for short periods of time began in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1995. Initially, bikes would need to be returned to docking stations, but today, many cities are adopting dockless bikes that can be left anywhere within a defined district and locked/unlocked with smartphone apps. At first, dockless bike sharing required government support and did not use smartphone technology. This changed when five Beijing University students created a bike-share system to solve campus transportation issues with the use of smartphones in 2016. This new design led to a massive increase in bike sharing across China and eventually the world. Bike sharing spread to the United States in 2008 when Washington, DC piloted the country’s first bike sharing system. By 2016, bike sharing in the US expanded to more than 40,000 bikes and 55 bike-sharing programs.
The benefits of dockless bike sharing—including not having to locate docking stations, cheaper set up, and lower user fees—have added to the appeal of these bikes. Some also argue that dockless systems help to combat equity issues imposed by dock-based systems. Because many docking stations exist in largely white urban, affluent neighborhoods, a vast majority of the users have historically been white. With the removal of the docking stations, bikes are more easily available in various zones and reach more users. However, docking station location and income can’t fully account for the statistical disparity of users of color. This is why researchers from Portland State University conducted a study to delve deeper into this issue. They found that “the biggest impediment to riding (for people of color) is safety.” In other words, low-income people of color had greater fear of being harassed or being a victim of a crime while riding. The study also found that “access to free or discounted helmets would encourage them to ride”.
While safety is a concern, some city residents also see dockless bike sharing programs as environmental hazards. The oversupply and lack of regulation when it comes to these bikes in certain areas has led to bikes crowding sidewalks and pedestrian spaces. In the summer of 2017, when Seattle, Washington began using Limebike, a dockless bike-sharing company, people began posting images on Instagram and Twitter of vandalized and oddly placed bikes. While a company spokesperson said this sort of treatment is “illegal” and “morally wrong,” these incidents still occur.
Although these systems have their flaws, they do act as a service for many people who either don’t own a car or simply find the bikes a convenient way to travel short distances. In Aurora, Colorado, the public-school system uses the bikes as a way to help students ride that last mile or two to or from school. Because the schools don’t offer bus service within a 3-mile radius of the schools, the bikes have been widely used by students. In about six months in Aurora alone, it is estimated that a total of 39,516 trips were made and 26,525 miles were ridden. One Aurora high school even painted an area for the bikes to be parked in the school’s parking lot throughout the school day. Aurora has also seen an increase in bike sharing wheels hitting nearby recreation trails. Although these bike systems are not perfect, in many instances they have proven to be an affordable and convenient way to get around without the use of a car and gasoline.
Do the benefits of bike sharing outweigh the costs? What was your experience riding a bike share bicycle?
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