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A row of bright red B-Cycle bikes parked at a bike-share station next to train tracks with a city skyline in the distance.
Denver’s B-Cycle launched in 2010 as the largest bike-share system in the country at the time.
Shutterstock.com

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The quiet triumph of bike share

How bike sharing in the U.S. became this decade’s biggest transportation success story

My first ride on a bike-share bike was late on a warm summer evening in 2013. As the pedal-powered lights illuminated the green-painted bike lanes on Denver’s deserted streets, my sandaled feet getting misted by sprinklers, I felt I had unlocked a part of city life I hadn’t accessed before.

That night, as the members of our group had weighed their taxi or transit options home, my sister and I spied the bike kiosk across the street. A quick swipe of our credit cards and we were on the road. I’d used regular bikes to get around the city plenty of times before, but there was something about the flexibility of the mode—there when you need it!—that enchanted me.

Over the past decade, bike share has been one of the great U.S. transportation success stories. Starting with Tulsa, Oklahoma’s program that launched in 2007, more than 60 U.S. cities now have bike-share systems, according to annual bike-share data from the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO). The gold standard has been New York City’s Citi Bike, which launched in 2013—remember when someone tried to dub them Mike’s Bikes?—and by 2015 was providing 10 million rides per year. In 2019, New York cyclists took a record-breaking 90,000 Citi Bike rides in a single day—then hit 100,000 rides per day just a few weeks later.

Studies have shown that bike share can help boost some transit ridership and may even be safer than riding personal bikes. The average cyclist death rate is 21 deaths per 100 million trips, but through 2014, after seven years of bike share in U.S. cities and 23 million rides, not a single person had been killed riding a bike-share bike. By the time U.S. bike share rides hit 100 million, which happened sometime in early 2017, only one death had been reported.

Later in 2017, when I wrote about the remarkable transformation that bike share had delivered to American cities, the U.S. had 55 systems spread across across the country, with five systems—Citi Bike in New York, Capital Bikeshare in D.C. Citi Bike in Miami, Divvy in Chicago, and Hubway (now Blue Bikes) in Boston—experiencing particularly strong growth.

But over the next two years, those numbers started to look a little different.

First there were dockless pedal bikes from a bunch of companies that never really made it, like Ofo and Mobike. (Yep, those mountains of bike graveyards in China.) Lime, another dockless pedal bike pioneer, quickly pivoted to electric modes. And then came all the scooters. By the time the dockless revolution began in earnest in 2018, there were a dozen companies jostling for our attention spans—as well as our sidewalk space.

But a few other changes started to happen in U.S. cities during this time, and I don’t just mean finding scooters sprouting from trees.

It was pretty clear right away that dockless electric scooters couldn’t match traditional bike share on safety; there were a half-dozen e-scooter deaths reported in 2018. Plus e-scooters were causing other major injuries to non-riders, enough to spark a class-action suit against the two largest companies, Bird and Lime. Around the same time, many of the safety advocates who had spent years speaking out for people who were injured on U.S. streets went to work for the scooter companies.

And then—this all happened in 2018, by the way—the ride-hailing companies started buying up the bike-share companies. Uber bought Jump, previously known as Social Bicycles, which operated some bike-share systems, but more importantly made a very successful dockless electric bike. And Lyft bought Motivate, the country’s largest bike-share operator, which meant Lyft now owned most of the country’s fastest-growing bike-share systems, including Citi Bike. And then Uber and Lyft both added scooters, too.

By the end of the decade, according to NACTO, these private transportation solutions were arriving in some cities before a publicly initiated one did, and many residents welcomed the opportunity for more transportation options.

A bright red dockless electric bike is seen parked on a sidewalk along a busy bike trail with tall buildings of downtown San Diego in the background.
Jump, a bike-sharing company that makes popular dockless electric bikes, was acquired by Uber in 2018.
Shutterstock.com

I felt like it took a long time for bike share to get to LA, where I lived. But it finally happened. In 2016, the day before I started at Curbed, actually, Metro Bike debuted with a splashy downtown ceremony.

Metro Bike had everything I had loved about Denver’s B-Cycle, but I didn’t use it that much—there were no stations near me. I became impatient for LA’s Metro Bike expansion. Eager for new options to get around, when Jump’s bright-red bikes appeared in my neighborhood in 2019 as part of a pilot program, I embraced them, even though I had mixed feelings about Uber as a company. Now with two kids, I found bike share to be the ideal solution for a quick one-way ride to their preschools and day cares in time for pickup.

But just as I was getting in a groove, suddenly, the cost to ride went up. Just one month after Uber went public in May, the price to ride Jump bikes in LA doubled from 15 cents to 30 cents per minute. And it’s not just in LA: In many markets where Uber operates Jump bikes, customers have been confronted with major price increases over the last year.

Then, in September 2019, Uber announced it was pulling its Jump electric bikes from Atlanta and San Diego, two major micromobility markets. The company also took its bikes out of Dallas and San Antonio earlier this year, leading many to question whether bikes remain a priority for a company that lost $5.2 billion in its first quarter.

Uber cited regulatory costs and city policies as the reason for the unexpected departures and higher prices. Shortly after that, Uber threatened to sue the city of Los Angeles over the sharing of bike and scooter data. It was right around this time that the red bikes vanished from my neighborhood. Looking at the Uber app, they appeared to have migrated to the city’s wealthier Westside. I worried about all the people in my neighborhood who didn’t have access to other options and had relied on Jump’s bikes for the fleeting moment that they breezed through our community.

As part of bike share’s rapid expansion, truly making these vehicles available for all has become the real challenge. Traditional bike-share systems have spent a decade wrestling with this, proposing solutions including subsidized fares, prepaid cards for unbanked riders, and station locations that prioritize underserved neighborhoods.

The private companies have some of these programs, too, but unless permitting processes mandate it, the companies aren’t required to provide reliable service for the whole city. After Lyft acquired Motivate, Citi Bike announced a $100 million expansion. But as details about the expansion emerged, concerns about equity were raised—only 16.5 percent of New Yorkers of color currently have access to Citi Bike—and Lyft partnered with New York City’s transportation department to form an equity advisory board.

But making bike share more accessible also means moving beyond conventional definitions of bikes. Traditional systems have not been able to serve people with disabilities, older adults, and riders who can’t use a standard two-wheeled bike. Detroit’s adaptive fleet features recumbent bikes, hand tricycles, tandems, and cargo bikes, making bike share inclusive. Some cities—not in the U.S.—have launched bike share for kids over the last decade.

We’re even seeing traditional bike share glean some innovation from the private companies. Traditional bike-share systems are adding electric-assist models to their fleets, which are useful for some people who aren’t comfortable riding on city streets, and many systems have even added “smart bikes” that can—for better or for worse—be abandoned on a sidewalk.

If our goal is to increase low-emission transportation ridership as fast as possible—and it should be—bike-share systems hold many of the answers. The systems can scale quickly, they can deploy new service relatively affordably, and they are often accompanied by infrastructure improvements to streets that entice other riders of bikes, scooters, and skateboards to try non-car modes.

But that doesn't mean bike-share systems are invincible. Last month, Denver Bike Sharing announced it was shutting down the B-Cycle system I rode that glorious summer evening so many years ago. Ridership had been slowly dropping since 2014, with riders arguing that it was due to lack of investment—the city hadn’t added enough hubs or bought new bikes with updated tech. And of course, Denver has another option now which might have drawn riders away from bike share: scooters. But Denver’s not completely ending its bike-sharing experiment, it will instead give select bike and scooter companies city contracts, much like Seattle and Santa Monica, California, have done.

It turns out my long wait for bike share was worth it. LA’s Metro Bike is one of the only systems in the country that’s operated through the city’s transportation agencies (as a partnership between Metro and the Los Angeles Department of Transportation), meaning it’s managed and funded more like arm of the transit system.

person riding an e-bike uphill
Last year, LA’s Metro Bike system added electric bikes to its bike-share fleet.
Metro Bike

After Denver’s bike share demise, I realized that even if I didn’t ride it frequently, I should support my local system by becoming a member. But once I did the math, I realized Metro Bike was a steal compared to the private companies. I planned to buy an annual pass that normally costs $150 (I ended up cashing in on a half-off Cyber Monday deal) and makes all my rides under 30 minutes free. Plus, I know the pricing won’t change. I can use my TAP card that I use to ride LA buses and trains to swipe out a bike in two seconds. And Metro has a few hundred electric bikes as part of its fleet, which can be docked just like regular bikes.

Then it happened—Metro Bike put a bike-share station at the end of my street.

Seeing the station there, after years of yearning for one, I’ve realized something else: One of the most powerful elements of bike share is that station. Instead of the potential nuisance created by scattered scooters, that docking hub achieves something completely different on the urban landscape. It’s an ad for tackling climate change, it’s a hub for like-minded mobility fans, it’s a signal that an investment is being made in a safer, more efficient city. There doesn’t need to be a bike-share dock on every corner. But what if we made space, in the street, for parking whatever little vehicle our neighbors want to use? Landmarks for a better tomorrow. On each block.

That thrill of seeing that bike-share station at the end of my street hasn’t worn off yet. The other day, I hopped on an electric bike and rode to the top of the steepest hill in my neighborhood just for fun, something I couldn’t do with a regular pedal bike without having to walk the last few blocks. Here I was, somewhere I’d never ever imagined I’d get on a bike, where I could see just how far we’ve come. As I looked out at the grid splayed around me, I remembered ten years of sometimes frustratingly slow progress. But for the first time, I saw every street filled with possibilities.

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