Bike Sharing in NYC: Tourist Chaos and Tighter Buttocks

Just when New Yorkers thought their tourists couldn't get any more insufferable, a new transit offering allows Big Apple visitors to weave precariously down city streets and sidewalks on two wheels provided by Citi Bike while clutching a pirogi in one hand and a smartphone in the other. The bike-sharing craze is on the rise in cities across the U.S., and indeed around the globe, presenting potentially significant implications for traditional modes of transport.

Photo by author of docking station in D.C. 

Bike sharing is the new muscle car
The idea behind bike sharing is fairly simple. The company places docking stations at strategic locations around a city where bicycles can be checked out and returned. There are various pricing and usage schemes, but most tend to include a flat-rate annual membership that offers unlimited trips within the first-time increment -- typically 30 minutes -- and then a per-minute use rate thereafter. One-off rates are common as well.

Since its launch just this summer, Citi Bike -- New York City's bike-sharing program -- has signed up more than 80,000 annual members and logged more than 8 million rider miles. Citi Bike has seen tremendous demand growth in that time, with solid increases in daily trips, miles traveled, and annual membership uptake. 

While the service had initially engendered huge skepticism about safety -- who puts a bunch of helmetless, dewy-eyed tourists on two shaky wheels in the middle of unforgiving traffic??? -- early doomsday predictions have so far not come to pass. Indeed, The New York Times unironically trumpeted this week the fact that no riders have been killed in Citi Bike's first five months of operation. There are plenty of reports of crazy rider antics that fray tempers on congested city streets, but the direst warnings appear to have been off base.

New York City is joining more than 500 cities in 50 countries that offer some form of bike sharing. Washington, D.C., launched Capital Bikeshare three years ago, and has just surpassed the milestone of 5 million user trips. Capital Bikeshare continues to expand its coverage area steadily, having doubled initial ridership projections in its first year of operation. 

Swan song for the yellow cab?
There has been some speculation that bike sharing could spell the demise of taxis in major metropolitan areas. The reality may indeed be quite the contrary. The rise in bike sharing has not taken place in a vacuum; instead, it is one element in a disruptive shift in urban transportation around the country.

Technology is expanding travelers' options not just to bike sharing but to car sharing, ride sharing, and smartphone-enabled route optimization across various modes of public transportation. Basically, I can look at a single app like RideScout on my iPhone and figure out fairly accurately whether I'm better off taking a bike, bus, or shared car to my destination, as well as determining scheduling and how much each will cost. So who needs a car?

That's where the real shift lies. Our reliance on the personal vehicle appears to be diminishing. Studies show that teenagers are delaying what for people my age -- ahem -- was a sacred rite of passage: the acquisition of a driver's license. They're also waiting to buy cars, or forgoing them altogether. 

Meanwhile, a recent study published jointly by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Frontier Group found that roughly 40% of North American bike-share users reported reducing their driving as a result. In a survey this year of Capital Bikeshare members, 5% said they'd sold a vehicle after joining the service, with 81% of those saying that bike sharing was a factor in their choice. The study attributes about 4.4 million miles in vehicle travel reduction to Capital Bikeshare.

So, then, the car is dead?
In the long term, this does seem to pose an existential threat to the old-school auto manufacturers. There are signs already. Last year, bicycle sales exceeded new car sales in every European Union country save Belgium and Luxembourg. While some of that reflects the eurozone crisis, it also represents a fundamental transition in urban transportation. Still, this will take time, and is unlikely to put any serious pressure on car companies in the near term.

Plus, bike sharing still has some evolving to do. Many services struggle with distributing their bicycles optimally throughout their service area. As a user of the D.C. system, I can attest to the infuriating frequency with which there is either no bike available at a dock, or no free spot at which to park a bike at my destination.

Safety, too, is a concern. Studies show that helmet use is extremely low among bike-share riders. On a recent trip to Paris, I asked my cab driver what he thought of that city's Vélib bike-sharing system. He sniffed and said dryly, "It's the surest way to get killed in Paris." While the numbers betray an exaggeration on his part, the issue still preoccupies public health officials. 

But it's all just a question of time. Regardless of the kinks, the way we move around cities is in metamorphosis. In the long run, personal vehicles may be going extinct in urban areas, yielding to a new era of shared, public, and technologically optimized transportation. So, how do you look in padded shorts?

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