04 August 2010

I Won't Share You

Flickr photo by James Cridland

Chicago joined the ranks of bike-sharing cities last week to much hoopla. Da Mayor cut a ribbon, a couple of newspaper articles were written, and hooray, we have 100 bikes that cost $10 an hour. The bikes are nice, but if you don't happen to pass by one of the six stations (all in the Loop and lakefront tourist bubble), you probably wouldn't even know they were out there. Meanwhile, London launched their Barclays Cycle Hire Scheme (rolls right off the tongue) with 5,000 bikes across the center city and more to come.

I've got a real problem with the way this is rolling out, and I don't have very high hopes that this "trial" will be too successful. If the assumed goal of a bike sharing program is to get people onto bikes who haven't used one in a while, making them available only in the traffic-choked downtown core probably isn't very enticing. If the stations were in actual neighborhoods where actual Chicagoans actually live, people then might decide to try one out, and then realize that riding a bike isn't so bad. This is precisely what has occurred in Paris, since Vélib’ was introduced, sales of adult bicycles have increased.

Over at Urbanophile this week, Aaron Renn has a post on uneven development within cities, a topic which is often on my mind. This is a classic example in my opinion. Chicago's neighborhoods can't get their potholes filled or have their recycling picked up, but the corporate owners of the Willis (née Sears) Tower can get multimillion dollar tax subsidies, and the Loop can get 100 bikes (so long as the city doesn't have to pay for them).

Bike sharing in selected cities by the numbers:

May 1995 - Copenhagen City Bikes - 2,500 bikes, 110 stations (soon to be replaced by a new system)
May 2005 - Lyon Vélo'v - 3,000 bikes, 350 stations
March 2007 - Barcelona Bicing - 3,000 bikes, 400+ stations
June 2007 - Montpellier Vélomagg - 750 bikes, 59 stations
July 2007 - Paris Vélib’ - 20,600 bikes, 1,639 stations
May 2009 - Brussels Villo! - 2,500 bikes, 180 stations
June 2009 - Montreal BIXI - 3,000 bikes, 300 stations
February 2010 - Mexico City Ecobici - 1114 bikes, 84 stations
April 2010 - Denver B-Cycle - 400 bikes, 40 stations
May 2010 - Melbourne BIXI - 610 bikes, 52 stations
June 2010 - Minneapolis BIXI - 700 bikes, 65 stations
July 2010 - London Barclays Cycle Hire - 5,000 bikes, 315 stations (so far)
2011 - Toronto BIXI - 1,000 bikes
July 2010 - Chicago B-Cycle - 100 bikes, 6 stations

Chicago is the third-largest of the cities listed above in population, yet with the current numbers there is roughly one shared bike for every 28,000 residents. That oft-repeated Chicago axiom (falsely) attributed to Daniel Burnham comes to mind..."make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized". Even the much-maligned SmartBike DC program is more widespread. It may all be in vain anyhow...if the predicted Tea Party electoral gains actually materialize this November, at least Denver's system could be in jeopardy. A gubernatorial candidate in Colorado apparently believes bike-sharing is part of some devilish UN plot to subjugate Real Americans. The future looks bright, friends.


  1. My thoughts exactly (ok, except for the part about the Tea Party). When this was first reported, I thought "only 100?" and "only downtown?" and "this would make much more sense in the neighborhoods."

    What is downtown that you would spend $10 on a bike to get to that you couldn't get to for $5 in a cab or $0 on foot?

    It seems even crazier that this is the strategy of a private enterprise. What do they know that I'm missing? Or did the city hamstring them?

    The sad thing is the consequence of a failed experiment.

  2. Well, it's interesting that $10/hour is exactly what Bike & Roll (the company running B-Cylce) charges for bike rentals. I may be overly cynical, but my guess is that from their standpoint, they are controlling the would-be competition, and if it fails, they can write off the loss. B-Cycle's website also lists the city, the Chicago Park District & CDOT as "funding partners" so it would seem that it's not entirely privately financed.

    Interestingly, Denver's B-Cycle is run by a 501(c)(3) non-profit and funded by a host of charitable organizations.