There's a bait-and-switch occurring in the bike share business that folks might find interesting.
First, the big picture. Cities are choking with traffic congestion and lack of parking, contributing to pollution, poor health, and costly infrastructure repairs. Mass transit buses, streetcars, and light rail already operate at capacity and even contribute to the problem. Carpooling helps when folks live and work closely and on similar schedules, but if someone gets off early or another works late, things get frustrating.
If suburbs have commuter bus and train stations, you still need to drive to them. A spouse might drop off and pick up, but that’s inconvenient if children are at home. If park-and-ride lots are full, you’re forced to drive anyway. Upon arrival, you still need to get from the station or parking spot to your destination. Taxis and ride sharing like Uber are no panacea as they are just so many more cars on the road.
What about the bicycle for commuting? Forget about it! Modern traffic and urban planners have pushed bicycles off the roads, relegating them to children’s play. Instead of traffic rules, children are taught to stay off roadways and use only bike paths. If they promise to be extra careful and always wear their helmets, maybe they can ride in bike lanes while parents’ hearts are ripped with dread! Relentlessly terrifying kids away from bicycling and then congratulating them on getting licensed to drive, can we expect them, with no practical experience or training, to start pedaling in traffic? It’s too late, indoctrination is complete. Kids won’t pedal to school and as adults won’t pedal to work or shopping, especially when cars have heat and air.
Then came bike share, an urban planning scheme to get people out of cars and public transit for at least short trips and errands that are too far to walk [often considered by urban planners to be about a quarter mile, though it can be more]. While the bicycle is the option chosen, forget about commuting. This is about short errands.
Communal bike share was introduced in Europe. Readily identifiable bikes were scattered throughout a city to be ridden and left for the next rider. Most famously in Paris, within days about half were tossed into the Seine River. Next, they tried commercial docking stations requiring prepaid memberships or credit cards to unlock and rent a bike and financial liability if it is not returned and secured properly. Voila! Bike share took off, at least in densely packed cities where traffic is horrible and actual distances are rather short.
This scheme was picked up in cities worldwide. In the USA, notably Washington, DC, New York, Chicago, Seattle, Portland, and many others. Some failed almost immediately while others were restructured and eventually appeared to thrive but most are losing money and are subsidized by taxes. That’s acceptable since the purpose is to lighten existing traffic and demand on public transit. While docking stations themselves took up precious parking spaces and to some people were an eye sore, the real challenge was to keep bikes adequately distributed. Not good to begin your commute by finding the rack empty. Even worse is pedaling to the destination and unable to dock because it’s full.
Next, from China, came dockless bike share. No racks or costly infrastructure, each bike has its own GPS and wheel lock. Use a phone app to find the nearest bike, register to unlock and ride, then park and lock, and get billed. Ah, but then they rediscovered vandalism. In St. Louis, three separate bike share companies received approval last spring. One backed out before starting, another withdrew within two months, while the third, Lime, lost 1,200 of its 1,500 bicycles before autumn. Similar experiences reported in other cities suggest to me that dockless bike share is not viable.
In early February, Lime in St. Louis eliminated its bicycle fleet altogether but introduced dockless e-scooters to replace them. I wrote about e-scooters in a previous column. Essentially a child’s kick scooter but with a battery powered electric motor capable of 15 miles and 15 mph, more or less, though “your experience may vary”. Typically, all scooters are set out by employees in the morning and then recovered and charged overnight. As with the dockless bicycles, you use an app to find one and log on to ride. You are then billed $1 to start and $.15 per mile. When done, you park, log off and get billed.
In my opinion, the scooters are unsuited for street riding and the standing position is very unstable. Smaller and lighter than bicycles, scooters are even easier to heave into a river or dumpster.
So why are e-scooters appearing? They are less costly than bicycles and can make a lot of money if used only for shorter trips. Consider the math. With 60 minutes of operating range, assuming 12 mph average and remember the $1 fee to start. A single 12 mile/60 minute ride will cost $1 + (60 x $.15) = $10 and the battery is done for the day. But if 60 people each ride only 2/10th mile/1 minute apiece, that’s 60 x $1.15 = $90 daily! Guessing 250 good weather riding days, that’s potentially $22,500 per scooter per year.
There’s no profit in long rides but plenty in short ones when people pay $1.15 for a 1 minute ride instead of a 4 minute walk. Later we will be again reminded of the health benefits of walking and bicycling, but only after this experiment in urban planning runs its course.
Big cities are giving up on bicycle commuting, switching instead to e-scooters. Figuring how this tale ends, I’m skipping ahead to the future by sticking with my own bicycle.
I hope that I’ve dispelled some concerns and encouraged others to give bicycle riding a try. Perhaps we’ll meet soon. I’ll ring my bell!